Trevor Nunn: 'Shakespeare invented the box set'

The former RSC artistic director on reviving his friend Peter Hall’s epic Shakespearean cycle ”The Wars of the Roses”

'It was one of the great theatrical achievements' - Trevor Nunn on The Wars of the Roses
'It was one of the great theatrical achievements' – Trevor Nunn on The Wars of the Roses
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Adapted from Shakespeare's Henry VI Parts I, II & III and Richard III, the Wars of the Roses cycle was first staged by Peter Hall and John Barton to great acclaim at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963. Trevor Nunn – who inherited to RSC from Hall – will direct its first revival at the Rose Theatre, Kingston later this year.

What inspired you to revive The Wars of the Roses?
I was lucky enough to be in the audience at Stratford-upon-Avon when the production was first performed, so I saw the great Peggy Ashcroft and Ian Holm, and it was absolutely indelible; one of the great theatrical achievements. Therefore, doing a revival of that text, of that adaptation, is one way that I can celebrate the astonishing careers of Peter Hall and John Barton… I hugely admire both of them and their achievements and I was lucky enough to have them both as mentors.

There's a further connection between Peter Hall and the Rose Theatre
He was its founding father – it was his last artistic directorship before he retired. I remember visiting the venue with him when it was still a building site, and several times since then, so it's a very emotional place for me. And it's modelled on the original Rose on the south bank, which is where the Henry VI plays and Richard III were first performed. So they're coming home.

According to press material the stage will be turned into a battlefield
It will – several times! My designer John Napier is doing something that is very thrilling. And I've got the wonderful [fight director] Malcolm Ranson who's done battles for me over several generations, who'll be working with a company made up of professionals and members of the local community.

The Henry VI plays have been called Shakespeare's Game of Thrones
They have, and although that sounds like the invention of a publicity department I think it was a scholar who said it first. It's a very accurate description; Shakespeare provides a sense that there's this appalling real-life chess game going on, and people are making moves and thwarting each other all the time. The throne changes hands repeatedly. Shakespeare invented the box set – there he is writing parts one, two and three and then Richard III, which was written as part four. These plays were written as a cycle.

How radical was Barton and Hall's adaptation?
Basically they turned four Shakespeare plays into a trilogy, and they did it with great wisdom. There are areas, particularly in Henry VI Part One, that have a degree of obscurity and were edited out. So John created a second play called Edward IV, which removed material that wasn't relevant to that endless game of thrones. It involves occasional transpositions to create linking passages, stitching different scenes together, but it's all Shakespeare's words. And it reminds us that Shakespeare was the first person to dramatise Joan of Arc, who appears in Henry VI.

Will The Wars of the Roses will bring you closer to fulfilling your stated ambition to direct every Shakespeare play?
It will bring me much closer to my target. I've never done the Henry VI plays or Richard III, so consequently this project will mark a very big chunk [of the seven Nunn is still to direct]. But it's not the reason I want to do them. The reason is that they remain urgent and relevant and capable of making us think 'oh god, we're still doing the same things, we're still resorting to battle and bloodshed'. The plays really investigate that instinct of why we resort to war.

I'm amazed you've never done Richard III
I've got close to it on a couple of occasions. But it often happens when you're running a theatre company that you have your big planning meeting and say 'I'm thinking about Richard III,', and then somebody else says 'oh, I wanted to do that,' so you defer to them. That happened with Richard and it also happened with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Wars of the Roses trilogy runs in rep at the Rose Theatre, Kingston from 3 to 31 October 2015 (previews from 16 September)