Heather Neill talks to Richard Eyre, retiring artistic director of the National Theatre about class, King Lear and his father's shadow
Richard Eyre does not intend to go gentle into retirement. In September he will be stepping down as artistic director of the Royal National Theatre after almost 10 years, but, with just a few months to go, he is rehearsing a new play, Amy's View, by David Hare and planning the production of a just-finished Stoppard, about the poet, Housman.
Last month saw the first in-the-round production (The Caucasian Chalk Circle) in the remodelled Olivier auditorium and he is glowing with the success of his realisation of two contrasting classics, the effervescent musical Guys and Dolls and King Lear.
Lear was the official reason for this interview. Eyre's is a breath-takingly moving and thought-provoking production of a piece rarely done justice by the most adroit director. The only thing to be said against it is that you will have to be very lucky to see it as Ian Holm inhabits the role of the abdicating monarch for the benefit of a mere few hundred spectators at a time in the National's smallest space, the Cottesloe. So, for those teachers and students who can only piece together the effect of the experience and the detail of the director's intentions from reviews, here is a chance, we hope, to gain a few insights. Neither Eyre nor Holm granted interviews before the opening night.
In his office at the National, with its travel-brochure view of the Thames and the sharp light of an early summer evening cutting the gloom, he is apparently relaxed in his lived-in tweedy jacket. He obligingly agrees to last-minute photographs and politely re-routes phone calls meant for someone else. But, just for a minute, he is defensive. "I get outraged letters complaining that I'm preventing people from seeing King Lear. It's so exasperating when they say, 'Why don't you do it in a bigger theatre?'. It wouldn't have been the same. And anyway, Ian wouldn't have done it." (Ian Holm famously suffered from stage fright for 15 years and has only recently returned to live performance. ) He is not unsympathetic to these cries, however, and is considering moving the production into the altered Olivier. "It had to be created in that small space; now it's possible to amplify it, metaphorically, that is."
For the moment, audiences sit on either side of an oblong, or traverse, performing area, running the length of the theatre. Eyre was directing an earlier Hare play, Racing Demon, in a similar configuration when it struck him that this was the perfect stage for Shakespeare.
"It's really important for it to be seamless. People say it's cinematic and it is in the sense that it cuts and flows. If you stop the momentum, you traduce the text and rhythms. You've got to keep the pulse going." In the case of Lear, "there's a sense that it happens in a very, very short time. The first half takes just a few days".
In this production, the first half stops short of the blinding of Gloucester. Knots of nervous NT patrons play with their interval drinks and hope it will be bearable. When you are so close to the actors (in the front row you are warned not to lean forward and so risk being injured by falling scenery in the storm scene) you cannot but feel involved with, even implicated in, the fate of the characters.
Eyre has good reasons, of course. "It's very unsatisfactory to end with the blinding. I love that elegiac comment that Edgar (Gloucester's son) has at the end of the scene: How light and portable my pain seems now,
When that which makes me bend,
makes the King bow
There's a sort of balm from Edgar. Then you start again with the blinding and it is followed by a succession of scenes about love, a series of thematic symphonic variations on love. You don't get the force of that if the blinding is before the interval. This is not a remorselessly bleak world. After the blinding, the argument seems to be against that."
In this intimate space, the tragedy is all-too-clearly a domestic one. "There are two stories, two fathers, one with three daughters, one with two sons. Both fathers are taught how to love, one made to 'see' by being blind, one made to understand by going mad. They are both utterly reprehensible parents. Lear is a titanic piece of work and we've all studied the subject all our lives - the relationship with our parents."
Eyre is 54 and the father of a grown-up daughter, but his childhood and adolescence, especially his relationship with his autocratic father, are very much with him still. The autobiographical section of his book, Utopia and Other Places, opens with the sentence, "Our parents cast long shadows over our lives." Paradoxically, with maturity, his sympathies have moved away from Lear, whom he once saw as indeed "more sinned against than sinning". "My own father had a lot in common with Lear. I never saw him give way to emotion, except temper, until he had a stroke. Then, not being able to censor his feelings, he cried uncontrollably. Lear is given to ungovernable rages; the veneer of self-control quickly gets thinner. It is only since the death of my father that I can view the play with equanimity. It is only in middle age, when parents die, that you cease to be a child."
Eyre broke with the tradition of his upper middle-class family by going to university. He had been expelled from Sherborne for, among other things, editing a satirical school magazine at a time when his preoccupations were turning from science to English. At Cambridge he played Seyton in his NT successor Trevor Nunn's first Macbeth. Eyre's father, a naval officer and then a gentleman farmer, thought university a waste of time, advising his son instead to "fuck his way round the world and learn in the university of life".
Much of Lear is, says Eyre, about the younger generation "wanting to be given a chance; they want the old people to get on with it. It's what all children feel about their parents. Then they go - and you miss them."
One of the first things he said to Ian Holm during the two years over which they talked, on and off, about doing Lear together was, "There are four old men, well four actors in their 60s - Lear, Gloucester, Kent and the Fool. " Michael Bryant plays the Fool as Lear's Cockney alter-ego whose disappearance from the script is understood to signify his death from old age and exhaustion. "To make the Fool young is nonsense. They have grown up together. That's why he has such incredible licence. Of course, a Fool is licensed to make jokes, but he doesn't make jokes; he's very savage, bitter in his truth-telling."
The insecurity of domestic comfort is central to this Lear. The first scene takes place around a table. "It is an iconic figure in family life," says Eyre, "In my experience all family rows begin at table because that is the only time you are together." Warmth and harmony are easily lost: "You quarrel, leave home - and have nothing." Lear, naked on the heath, is, literally, "a bare forked animal". Eyre pays tribute to Holm's "unostentatious truthfulness" in carrying it off. Nature is awesome. "The world we control - of heat, light and furniture is within houses."
Lear's daughters are what he has made them. Goneril has endured years of punishment, of "being poked in the back and told to sit up"; Regan has learned to flirt to get her way, while Cordelia, the favourite, is "incredibly wilful". Eyre imagines that in her sisters' place, we'd all be wanting spoilt Cordelia to shut up and please the old man. The final, terrible image of bodies heaped on a cart was suggested by a television documentary about the Holocaust. "The family has destroyed itself - from one row."
Some lucky students will get the chance to see all this for themselves. Eyre is not evangelical about Shakespeare as theatre, however. "Productions are often disappointing, a lot of bombast. It's so difficult to do it well, but if it does come off, it's FANTASTIC. Actors have to think at the speed of light. Ian makes you believe he's thinking of the speech as he speaks, yet the meaning is crystal-clear. What's depressing is that Shakespeare is often taught doggedly, in inhumane fashion. My father was cruelly abusive about Shakespeare because he'd been badly taught so he decided, defensively, that it was rubbish. It's heartbreaking when you realise that Shakespeare was the most brilliant playwright ever."
There is good teaching, of course, and Eyre himself benefited from it. "Teaching and directing have a lot in common - feeding in ideas." He has used numerous editions of Lear, including a school one which was particularly helpful in raising lots of questions at the end of each Act.
During his tenure at the National, Eyre has encouraged new writing (Patrick Marber and Martin McDonagh are current young stars) and supported the education department enthusiastically. BT Connections, which has included the commissioning of new work for young performers and which is going on now in regional theatres, will once again bring young people to the National's stages this summer. He acknowledges, however, that the usual NT audience is from a narrow social group and that he has been unable to put into practice his plan always to have a children's play in the repertoire. The reasons for both are partly financial: you cannot charge full price for children's tickets and NT resources have always been stretched.
He is not, however, responsible for the British class system, he says. Theatre tends to be regarded as a middle-class activity. "The problem is at heart one of education. It is the key to the future, but change cannot be achieved by tinkering with syllabuses and nursery schooling." He believes we need to improve resources for education and raise teachers' status. "We need to say to teachers, and people in general, teaching is an admirable activity we put high store on. We won't change attitudes to the arts, to anything, including British isolationism, except through education."
As he sets about "reinventing" his own life, he admits that his job has been "the most fulfilling thing you can imagine. Theatre exists to give pleasure and enlightenment, in the sense that a good piece brings light into darkness. The arts are our way into other people's heads, our way of decoding the world. "
And off he goes to meet Tom Stoppard, to begin work on another bit of the human puzzle.
Utopia and Other Places is published by Bloomsbury at Pounds 16.99