- Shakespeare in the Theatre: Trevor Nunn by Russell Jackson
In a series of concise and thoroughly documented chapters, Russell Jackson, in his book on Trevor Nunn’s Shakespeare productions in the new Arden “Shakespeare in the Theatre” series, applies his usual powers of vivid description and astute analysis toward making a case for Nunn as among the most important Shakespeare directors since the 1960s. He admits that Nunn usually does not make the final cut on many performance historians’ shortlists. Is this, I wonder, because Nunn has (to date) left no manifesto about theatre or about Shakespeare? Because he rarely resorts to high concepts or easy visual metaphors? Because he usually shirks drawing obvious parallels to contemporary political events? Or is it that, although he wowed with the teeming theatricality of Nicholas Nickleby (1978, co-directed with John Caird), scholars have never forgiven him for the treacly Les Misérables (1985, again with Caird), not to mention the inexplicably successful Cats (1981) and the merely inexplicable Starlight Express (1984)?
And yet Nunn is responsible for several productions in the top bracket of my life list. When I arrived in London to research my dissertation in late spring of 1978, Nunn’s production of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company was in the last two weeks of its extended run at the Young Vic, completely sold out two years after its premiere at The Other Place (TOP) at Stratford. I got to the theatre four hours early to queue for returns and managed to see the show. A few days later I was back in the queue, determined to see it again.
Jackson makes his case for Nunn by considering in turn each institutional phase of his career at his long-time creative home, the RSC, where he first directed in his twenties and where he became artistic director in 1968 and then joint artistic director with Terry Hands from 1978 to 1986. During each of these phases, Nunn, like other directors before and since, wrestled with the intractable barn of the RSC’s mainstage, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST). At first he tried to solve the challenges of that space scenically, employing frames that did double and triple duty across the season, to create stunning visual images—what Jackson calls “large-scale theatrical gestures” (84). For the 1972 Romans season he installed cubes and columns that could be raised, lowered, and raked hydraulically. For the 1976 season he installed a quasi-Elizabethan façade with onstage gallery seating. But none of these solutions lasted: the machinery for the Roman plays was abandoned when the plays transferred to the Aldwych the following year. By the mid-1970s, Jackson writes, “a journey had been taken into and out of the theatre of spectacle, at least in so far as the stage’s architecture was concerned” (87).
The breakthrough came with the 1976 Macbeth, a play that Nunn had directed in the RST the year before. Staging it afresh at TOP, the Quonset hut only recently put to use by the RSC as a performance venue, Nunn found the intimacy he had been searching for. With a simple set of staging conventions and with spectators able to see the actors up close, [End Page 124] Nunn was able to create a theatre that focused on the characters’ psychological truth. Jackson breaks his otherwise chronological narrative and dedicates a separate chapter to Macbeth and to the half-dozen chamber productions that followed—most notably Othello at TOP in 1991 and The Merchant of Venice at the Cottesloe in 1999—while he was the stopgap artistic director at the National Theatre from 1997 to 2003. Many of the production choices in Macbeth that Jackson describes in detail are the ones I remember from seeing the production at the end of its run: the pared-down conventions (the ensemble’s sitting on cubes, with actors stepping into a circle on the floor to perform their characters as needed), Lady Macbeth (Judi Dench) pulling away in horror at the evil she...