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Another Change of Direction

Trevor Nunn is back in 'serious' theater after his forays into mega-musicals. Now L.A. audiences can see his acclaimed interpretation of Ibsen.

July 12, 1998|David Gritten

LONDON — It's a tough job, trying to pin down Trevor Nunn's identity. His life and career can be viewed in any number of ways; it all depends on how close to him you stand.

To the world at large, Nunn is the maestro of the modern musical. As director of "Cats," "Les Miserables," "Starlight Express," "Sunset Boulevard," "Chess" and "Aspects of Love," he has assisted at the birth of spectacular stage productions (four of them composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber) that, starting in the 1980s, transformed the very notion of what a musical was and could be.

"Cats" and "Les Miserables" continue to pack theaters all over the world, and Nunn's share of the gross, plus his royalties for writing the lyric for the ubiquitous "Memory" from "Cats," have made him a multimillionaire--in pound sterling terms, let alone dollars.

That's the broader world's view of Trevor Nunn. The British know him equally well in another context. For 18 long years, from 1968 to 1986, he was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In that period he averaged one Shakespeare production a year and co-directed, with John Caird, two stunning successes, "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables," which transferred to commercial theaters. He also supervised the opening of the RSC's new London home at the Barbican in 1982.

Zero in even closer and talk about him with his collaborators, and yet another picture emerges--of Nunn the earnest scholar, painstakingly unraveling Shakespearean texts until they yield hidden meanings. It's a habit he learned in his younger days at Cambridge University, where he sat at the feet of the legendary don F.R. Leavis and became a disciple of the Leavisite school of literary criticism.

The acting community generally likes Nunn because he furnishes them with so much detailed information about their characters and their motivations. "No one ever sees this side of him," says one actor, who has worked with him, "but he's very good inside the rehearsal room."

On one hand, then, there's showman Trev, delivering an assembly line of expensively produced hit musicals to mass audiences. On the other, there's solemn Mr. Nunn, poring over the text of "Twelfth Night" to see what Shakespeare was really saying, deep down, about gender issues.

Recently, Nunn has further confused people's perceptions about him. After more than a decade as a freelance hired gun in the commercial sector, directing lucrative musicals, he returned in October to the fold of subsidized theater and became artistic director of the Royal National Theatre. It means that, like his mentor Peter Hall, he has headed both of Britain's world-class theater companies, the RSC and the National.

This summer, Nunn has been busy at home directing an ambitious revival of "Oklahoma!" for the National; at the same time, he has also been finalizing details to bring a National touring company to Los Angeles, where the first production he directed for the company, Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," will open at the Ahmanson Theatre on July 22.

Ian McKellen takes the lead role of Dr. Tomas Stockmann, a medical officer in a Norwegian coastal town who finds the local baths are contaminated. His attempts to reveal the scandal are thwarted by a cover-up on the part of politicians and the press, and he is vilified in the town. The production attracted almost unanimous rave reviews in the British press, and played to crowded houses throughout its London run.

"It's about society and the individual," Nunn reflected, sitting at his desk in his office at the National on the Thames' south bank, which afford glorious wide-screen views of London that stretch as far as St. Paul's Cathedral to the east.

"In so many areas, Ibsen was uncannily accurate in terms of predicting how things were going to go in this century.

"There have been countless examples in recent years of individuals who have blown the whistle about corruption and a cover-up or some other danger to society. And what happens is they're turned into pariahs. They're marked, renounced and ridiculed."

It may be stretching a point, but one can see why Trevor Nunn might feel a pang of sympathy for Dr. Stockmann and be drawn to a play about the frailties of the press. While hardly a pariah, Nunn enjoys a relationship with the British media best described as combative.

Put simply, he is slightly distrusted. Parts of the British arts establishment feel Nunn let their side down by leaving the classical theater of the RSC to enrich himself by directing vulgar musicals. Much of this was pure snobbery; the class system continues to thrive in British theater, as it does throughout British society. Yet there was also widespread comment about how much time Nunn spent away from the RSC in his latter years to work on various Lloyd Webber projects--even he described himself at the time as "an absentee landlord."

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