Trevor Nunn: “That image has haunted me my whole life”

Director Trevor Nunn on his love of Shakespeare, a life-changing exam – and how he restyled theatre

When I was 16 I was completely smitten with the idea of theatre. I thought I wanted to be an actor. I loved everything about Shakespeare because I had a wonderful teacher who brought everything about the theatre alive, especially Shakespeare. At the same time a few of us boys set up a little skiffle group called The Trackers. I was lead vocal and guitar, right at the front. We played lots of gigs for money in various pubs and halls. So there was a bit of a sneaking ambition to be a performer in music. But that didn’t happen.

By peculiar accident I got to know Tony Blair long before he was Prime Minister

I was very lucky. I grew up in a little Ipswich working class street. My dad worked at the bench, as a carpenter. We couldn’t afford to go on holiday – we had no money at all – but we never felt we were wanting in anything. I don’t have a single complaint about my childhood. I never felt we were deprived. I adored my mum and dad and my sister, we were a very, very close family. So I was a very, very happy kid. Though I have to admit… this was the time of the 11-plus. My sister failed by probably one mark. She was very bright. I probably scraped it by one mark. But that little difference completely changed our lives. My sister went to a secondary modern where she was told to aim for being a shop assistant. I went to a grammar where we were told, come on, the sky’s the limit.

My dad brought me up to vote Labour. There was never any question of anything else. The Labour MP Dick Stokes came canvassing on his bike and we all stood and cheered him. The Conservative came round in his car and we all threw stones at him. I’ve never, ever let my dad down since. By peculiar accident I got to know Tony Blair long before he was Prime Minister. He was just going into politics. I think the centre left project was a wonderful thing to bring about social change in this country. And now Jeremy Corbyn has amazed all of us. If only he could have campaigned when Brexit was up for grabs as he campaigned for this General Election, with a microphone high in the crowds, whipping people up into a frenzy…

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

I knew the only way I’d get to university would be on some kind of state scholarship. Otherwise we couldn’t afford it. That was down to the ’45 Labour government. They gave working class people the chance to get their university education funded by the state. Completely the opposite of what we have now. I had a school teacher who said I should have a go at getting into Cambridge. It felt like madness, it could never ever happen. But he worked with me at lunchtimes and after school. He gave special tutorials at his house at weekends. And he got me into Cambridge, and changed my life completely.

Nicholas Nickleby

If you’d told the teenage me about the life awaiting him he would just have said, you are completely joking. Going to Cambridge, all the work I’ve done in the theatre… I’ve always felt that I managed to sneak under the ropes to get into the enclosure. This is a true story: when I was about 10 years old the film star Maureen O’Hara came to our town to open the local fete. It was absolutely amazing. I don’t know why she agreed to do it, she was very famous. I slipped along to the special roped-off area and managed to wriggle under the rope. I got right alongside Maureen O’Hara and got to say, hello, thank you for coming to our town. But I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. And that’s been the image haunting my whole life, of someone coming up to me and saying, sorry, you don’t belong in this enclosure.

I got fantastically lucky over and over again. I met people at university – Peter Cook, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, John Cleese, Miriam Margolyes – I mean really… and we all worked together. Then I got a job in a little repertory, the Belgrade Theatre, in Coventry. A wonderful place and only 15 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. So I would hitchhike there and stand at the back of the Royal Shakespeare Company and watch show after show. It never occurred to me that anyone would ever come in the opposite direction.

One night after a show in Coventry I was told Peter Hall [founder and then artistic director of the RSC] had come to our theatre and he wanted to talk to me. I couldn’t believe it. And he said, I want you to come and join us at Stratford. So I became his assistant. He was my complete mentor and idol. And one day he turned to me and said, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. Now I want you to take over and run the company. I said, what are you talking about? I couldn’t possibly. He said, yes you can. Go on, do it.

When I was growing up I became fascinated with the novels of Dickens. I was very taken with the idea of Pip in Great Expectations, who grows up in poverty and goes on to live this extraordinary life. If I could talk to my teenage self I’d say, would you believe, I once had this crazy idea of adapting a whole Dickens novel for the stage, a novel called Nicholas Nickleby. It sort of… changed theatre-style. It was complete story theatre, with 40 people, not just on stage but all over the theatre, and involving the audience. It was done at the RSC in 1980 [above]. It won all the awards going, then we took it to Broadway and it won the Tony Awards as well. It made the RSC world famous for things beyond being the theatre of Shakespeare’s birthplace. It was an incredible experience and I’ve never forgotten it.

I thought, oh my God, oh my God, could it be? I got off the bus, and ran all the way back to my house

I can remember every bit of the moment I found out I’d got into Cambridge. It was Christmas and I was working for the Post Office. On the day the telegrams were due I took a bag for addresses near my house so I could nip home and see if a telegram had arrived. I got home about 4pm, it was dark, I switched on the light… and there was nothing there. I thought, stupid, of course, of course you’re not going to get in. Then, sitting on the bus back into town, I saw a telegram boy on a red motorbike passing in the opposite direction. I must have been mad. I thought, oh my God, oh my God, could it be? I got off the bus, ran all the way back to my house, thinking the whole time, you’re an idiot. I got home, switched on the light, and there on the mat was… nothing but the local paper. I was so upset. I picked up the paper and there underneath was a telegram. It said: ‘Congratulations’. I jumped around, then I sobbed my heart out. Then I got four pennies and went to a phone box and called my teacher. And he shouted out: “We did it!”

Dessert, a new play by Oliver Cotton and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, is at Southwark Playhouse until August 5