National Service: Diary of a Decade
Date: 3 November 2003
During his ten years as boss of the National Theatre, Richard Eyre kept a diary, which captured the life, & many of the personalities, at the heart of British theatre. In these extracts, Eyre shares views on various directors, actors & playwrights.
Stephen Daldry: Meeting with Stephen Daldry. I've recently seen two of his shows at the Gate; both of them were unmistakably directed, both were hugely inventive, and both were entirely different. He's a beguiling mixture of the watchful and the flirtatious, charming, manipulative, strategically blunt, selectively iconoclastic ('Oh he's no good at ALL...') and really ambitious for theatre and, I suppose, for himself. We talk about a number of possible plays. He wants to do An Inspector Calls, which he's done at York. I'm extremely sceptical and ask him to justify it. He describes his production - political parable, exploding house, real rain - and I'm hooked.
Peter Hall: (predecessor as NT artistic director) I had to go with Peter to have my photo taken with him in front of a blow-up of Olivier. Peter was like a student, without money, or home, or a wife. He was dressed almost identically to me - black shirt, grey- and- white-flecked jacket. We look like a country and western duo. Peter's boyish and undentable. He giggles at the newspaper articles about him and his love life. I think Peter's got a real horror of silence and a fear of loneliness. He's not gregarious; he obliges himself to paper his life with activity .... I'm in awe of his energy, his resolve never to be cowed. He just keeps going.
Nicholas Hytner: (current NT artistic director) Nick Hytner has a face like a mime - Barrault from Les Enfants du Paradis - oval face, arching eyebrows, animated, almost over-animated. Flights of ideas and gossip, riffs of enthusiasm, indignation, then repose; latent violence, subverted by a childlike smile. He's prodigiously talented, has a real facility for staging and a great appetite for work. He's from a completely different constituency from me and thinks I should work with new people.
Sam Mendes: Sam Mendes reminds me of how people describe the young Peter Hall: boundless energy, puppyish charm, great capability, daunting self-confidence, canny strategist. Perhaps it's an act, but if it is it's a remarkably complete one .... Edward Bond was very enthusiastic about Sam Mendes: 'He's got something,' he said, pausing a long time, 'but I'm not sure what it is.' What it is is a very astute mind, a preternatural self-confidence and a willingness to learn by observing other people.
Adrian Noble: (then RSC artistic director) Dinner with Adrian Noble. He looked like an enthusiastic schoolboy when I arrived. We ate at the Caprice, and I was distracted throughout the meal by the presence of Joan Collins busy projecting her Joan Collinsness over his shoulder. I told Adrian about how difficult I found it all at the NT. He told me he was undaunted by the RSC and wanted to create the best company in the world. He played with the sugar in the bowl but didn't put it in his coffee and I wondered whether I should tell the waiter that the sugar had been well fingered.
Deborah Warner: Very confident and likeable and quite certain of her destiny. She's a handsome woman, slightly haughty, with 19th-century patrician bearing, which would have served well with the Bedouin in the Empty Quarter or with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. A woman of action. She has an endearing self-confidence allied to a sort of youthful bashfulness. We talked about Shakespeare and Brecht.
Eileen Atkins: A zen actress - everything distilled to its essence.
Steven Berkoff: Steven's a curious mix of the courteous and companionable, with the defensive aggressiveness of a pit bull terrier. He's taken a stand early against his critics and carved out his work from a rock of rejection - the last of the Victorian actor-managers.
Michael Gambon: An immense Balzacian welter of humanity, violence and love. He's a genius, more capable of giving and receiving love on stage than any other actor. Seeing him (in View from a Bridge) I feel that a number of unperformable plays become possible. Not that he'd ever want to be in them.
Ian McKellen: Like all stars Ian McKellen consumes the energy of everyone around him. He dominates rehearsals often at the expense of other actors, but all strong actors radiate an energy that has an almost physical heat and they draw the heat like poultices from the actors around them. Being combative, impatient, irascible, and frustrating is often an implicit demand to be challenged and stimulated, to be given competition by their fellow actors ....Richard III is exciting. Ian is a formidable actor at the height of his powers. I wish he would be more settled: when he does something really good and utterly truthful in rehearsals, he mistrusts himself and if we run the scene again he over-decorates. But it's because he always want to mine more; it's an exasperating virtue.
Laurence Olivier: (NT founder) Olivier was mercurial, had energy, a remarkable presence, was funny, charming, devious, vain, and occasionally laughably hammy. He willed himself to greatness, but I'm not sure that a 'great' actor is always a good one. He satisfied a desire that audiences have for actors to be larger than life and to be able to be seen acting at the same time as they moved you to tears or laughter - the desire to be knowingly seduced.
David Hare It's odd that people think of David as hard-edged, pure intellectual, when his romanticism is his most conspicuous characteristic: he believes that people have the capacity to change society and each other - that love is a force of redemption. People often mistake belief in the redeeming power of love for sentimentality, much as they think that David's admiration for women is insincere - the 'men in drag' argument. But his writing is always in good faith. My politics are less defined than his: like most people who work in theatre I'm drawn to any vision of unity and social justice. I envy - but am wary of - the certainty of his opinions, which gives him the confidence to be a moralist, at least in private, unwilling to judge. He has a necessary self-belief, an absolute conviction of his own singularity, but if a writer doesn't have that, how can he write? It's clear that he doesn't want to direct any more because he can only hear one voice (his) in his head, and can't bear the endless banter and negotiation and patience required to work with actors. He admires (and so do I) the writers who year after year stick to their craft. And he certainly does that. Many playwrights surprisingly aren't concerned with technique; David's almost too concerned.
Ronald Harwood: A splenetic attack on me in the Evening Standard by Ronald Harwood about Murmuring Judges and subsidised theatre, which he sees as a self-serving conspiracy... I wonder if his bile has anything to do with the fact that I rejected a play, well, two plays, of his.
John Osborne: Meeting with John O. I've never talked much to him before and had, I suppose, expected an acrid, snarling, misanthrope. But I find myself with a lanky, dapper, Edwardian gentleman, wry and immensely courteous, like a soldier whose wars were a long time ago. Which in a sense they were. John was vastly successful in his late twenties for about 15 years - Look Back in Anger, Luther, The Entertainer, Hotel in Amsterdam, Inadmissable Evidence (his best), and of course the screenplay of Tom Jones. To keep on writing is the hardest thing and perhaps even harder if you're successful. On the other hand, writers are probably corrupted as much by failure as success.
Tony Blair: (then Labour MP) Met Tony Blair, who seems like an amiable, intelligent young academic, until he smiles - then he's a politician. He says we've met before. I know we haven't and I say so.
John Major: (then prime minister) John Major came to the theatre to see Napoli. His bodyguards sat behind him, dozing during the first act. They woke with a shock when Naples started to be bombed, dived on Major and pushed him under his seat. They looked rather bashful in the interval. It was just possible to see how Major had become Prime Minister: he's an affable, personable, amenable man, the bank manager of your dreams - understanding, forgiving, but tough and pragmatic.
Peggy Ramsay: (literary agent) Then I heard that Peggy Ramsay had died. More than anyone's death, for my generation this is the end of an era. Who else had the authority, the wisdom, or the gall to tell writers the truth about their work?
From 1987 to 1997, Richard Eyre served as artistic director of the National Theatre, where he produced more than 100 productions and directed 27 of his own, including such award winners as Guys and Dolls, Richard III (with Ian McKellen), Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, King Lear (with Ian Holm), and David Hare's The Absence of War and Amy's View (with Judi Dench). Since leaving the National, Eyre's credits have included Vincent in Brixton and, on Broadway, the The Crucible (with Liam Neeson) as well as the Oscar-winning film Iris.
The above has been extracted from National Service: Diary of a Decade (Bloomsbury hardback, £18.99) by Richard Eyre, whose other titles published by Bloomsbury are Changing Stages and Utopia and Other Places. For further information, visit the Bloomsbury website.
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