The New Statesman Interview - Trevor Nunn

The outgoing National Theatre director on how his friendship with a critic turned sour and on why he

The Artistic Director is dead; long live the Artistic Director. The new king of British theatre, Nicholas Hytner, has been named, and already the debate about the legacy of his predecessor, Trevor Nunn, has begun. For some, such as his nemesis Michael Billington, the Guardian's theatre critic, Nunn has squandered his subsidy on the candyfloss of easy populism. For others, such as the venerable Sheridan Morley and, perhaps most importantly, the audiences who have flocked to his shows, Nunn has been the energetic impresario of the South Bank.

Still ensconced in his offices at the Royal National Theatre for the next six months, Nunn continues to defend his regime. He argues that he has been true to the original vision of the founders of the National. "Granville-Barker [who published the manifesto A National Theatre in 1907] really insisted that it had to be a people's institution. Lilian Baylis [the creator of the Old Vic], who dreamed of a national theatre, insisted that the theatre was not a place for evening gowns . . . It was a place for working people who needed different horizons." This has been Nunn's vision, too: "The National is an organisation that benefits directly from taxpayers' money. I know of no edict that says that only those taxpayers with degrees in English literature pay for this place."

His vision derives not only from his belief that theatre must be a popular art form if it is to survive; it is also a natural feeling for a lad who grew up in poverty in 1940s East Anglia. It is to Nunn's credit that he has not tried to make political capital out of this. Indeed, it is so little known that many journalists have described Nicholas Hytner as the latest in a long line of "middle-class" artistic directors. When I ask if he sees any parallels between himself and the central character in his musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle (she, too, is lifted from a life of poverty and taught how to become a member of the establishment), he falls silent. For the first and only time in the interview, he sits entirely still, his richly expressive face revealing nothing. In an almost hushed whisper, he says: "I shared various experiences with Eliza Doolittle. I was - well, I grew up in a tiny two-up two-down. I experienced what it was like to be poor . . . We had only one working-class wage coming into the household."

Nunn even had his own Henry Higgins: "I experienced a mentor, a completely extraordinary man for whom I had a kind of idolatry." He was called Peter Hewett, a teacher who directed Nunn's school play. "Entirely because of him, a change of horizon happened . . . Very much later on, after he'd retired, he became the chairman of the board of the theatre in Ipswich, and I went to do a production there. It was one of the most fulfilling things that could ever happen. I saw him every day."

But his parallels with the musical don't end there. When he went up to Cambridge University on a scholarship, he "still had a very heavy and identifiable Suffolk/Ipswich accent. And I realised it was turning me into a pariah. It was very, very noticeable . . . That kind of country accent was associated with slow-wittedness. There would be jokes at my expense. I was determined, because I had a socialist chip on my shoulder, that I wouldn't go without an accent. I didn't want to complete Eliza's journey, as it were - I didn't want to become some aristocratic or public school product. On the other hand, I was a good actor. I could do accents.

"So, for 18 months at university, I changed myself into a cockney. Somehow, being cockney was acceptable, and being slow and from East Anglia wasn't, but it still allowed me to feel I was in some way an outsider, not joining up to that establishment."

So he tries to craft theatre that the people he grew up with will understand and enjoy. Critics are too hung up on the highbrow-lowbrow binary, says Nunn. "This is a late 20th- century problem, and actually it's an English problem . . . In certain areas of late 20th-century arts journalism, there has been a development towards intellectual snobbery. I don't think it's necessarily social snobbery, but it is unmissable in a certain group of critics."

The mention of critics can only bring us to the topic of Nunn's sworn enemy. "Michael Billington declared himself a complete opponent of my appointment two weeks before it was announced." This is an enmity with its roots - as with all the strongest enmities - in friendship. Nunn says that "he used to be a very good colleague. I employed Billington once. At the RSC, I got him to edit a small in-house magazine. I knew him very well."

He is rocking slightly as he begins to recount the story. "It started to break down when he wrote a virulent whole page about Nicholas Nickleby [a Royal Shakespeare Company production that Nunn co-directed], saying it should never have been done. It was an odd reaction to make to a show that had people walking out ecstatic every night. Tickets were exchanging hands on the black market for £200 apiece. He went on and on, writing that it was some kind of disgrace that the subsidised theatre should be doing this, because there were so many unknown German expressionist plays that should have been done instead."

Many of Billington's criticisms have clearly cut Nunn to the quick. He violently rejects the suggestion that his musicals in particular have been "safe" or "mindless". "The musical I'm working on now, South Pacific, has got a considerable degree of radicalism contained in it." Rodgers and Hammerstein, the creators of the show, challenged racial prejudice so powerfully that they nearly ended up on Joseph McCarthy's blacklists in the 1950s.

Yet, he spits, "there are two critics who have already written that South Pacific is a work completely beyond the territory of the National Theatre". Nunn clearly believes that a certain amount of this is personal. "I suspect if I had a different name and a different identity, Billington would be enthusing about that strand of work. But because he connects my name with commercial theatre, my work goes in that category."

The very rough ride Nunn has been given by the press over the past four years has clearly taken its toll. The job made two of his predecessors, Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall, quite ill. Once before, Nunn's workaholism pushed him to the edge. "I had a breakdown at the RSC in 1972," he admits with nervous laughter. "The workload just got to a point where the responsibility was piling up. There aren't enough hours in the day and there aren't enough hours in the week, and the backlog just gets huger and huger, and the financial problems never go away."

It must be especially galling to suffer so much criticism when, on top of pushing himself to these extremes, he didn't even want the National Theatre job at first. "I didn't apply. It never crossed my mind. I had left behind the subsidised theatre ten years before [when he resigned as artistic director of the RSC]. I had gone out on a high, and I was very proud of what had gone on there, but I was working on other things. Then this offer came, and I said no. But two or three people backed it up with a really passionate argument. So in the end, in negotiation with my wife, thinking about a young family and so on, I said I'd do it for five years. I made that pledge. I said it was finite." So the rumours that he is quitting because he won't put himself up for another five years of target practice for the broadsheets are, he claims, nonsense.

Although Nunn will be remembered for his controversial musicals, he stresses that "when South Pacific opens, it will be the fifth musical production the NT has initiated in five years, out of 82 shows". It would be unfair if he were not remembered also as the artistic director who discovered Blue/Orange, staged Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and rediscovered lost masterpieces such as Flight, Summerfolk and Not About Nightingales.

Nor have we heard the last of him. After the NT, "I'm doing something at Covent Garden, and at the Salzburg Festival, and a big musical in the States, and I've got a film project I'm working on".

This bearded Eliza might have just, some may argue, made his balls-up at Ascot. But the boy who rose from a tiny Ipswich two-up two-down to become the multimillionaire boss of British theatre will walk out of the National Theatre for the last time next year with his head held high.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world