If the Reduced Shakespeare Company can take pride in boiling down the Compleat works of William Shakespeare to two hours, then director Richard Eyre has an even greater boast: he's consolidated the last hundred years of Western theatre to six hours. The results will be on view on public television stations nationwide in late August, as the six-part series "Changing Stages" ranges from Shakespeare to Synge and from Beckett to Broadway musicals. Though initially conceived for TV, Eyre felt he could tackle the material best by writing a book first and then extrapolating the material into a video series. Drafting playwright Nicholas Wright (Mrs. Klein) as co-author, the book, "Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the 20th Century," will be released by Knopf Aug. 7. The TV series, which aired in the UK last year, debuts Aug. 26. Eyre could hardly be more suited to the role of theatre tele-historian. After directing at the Nottingham Playhouse repertory, Eyre produced the "Plays for Today" series for the BBC, in which he directed full-length modern dramas to be shown on television. He joined the National Theatre as associate director in 1982 and became its artistic director in 1988. His generally lauded tenure there ended in 1997.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: So what do you do after you've been to the mountaintop, start over?
Richard Eyre: I've been writing a lot. I wrote an adaptation of a French play last year, Les Mains Salles (Dirty Hands). I did that for the Almeida. Then I wrote a screenplay which I directed at the beginning of this year, "Iris," with Judy Dench and Kate Winslet. It will be released in December by Miramax. Then I directed The Marriage of Figaro in France in Aix en Provence. I also will probably do another play at the National Theatre, but right now I'm planning a production of The Crucible, with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, to open in the beginning of March on Broadway.
PBOL: Any particular reason for choosing the Miller drama?
RE: I think it's an absolutely magnificent play. You need no historical impetus to justify a production of The Crucible. What it says about society in general—it's an everlasting classic because it tells truths that are sadly immutable.
PBOL: It's obvious you've kept incredibly busy since stepping down from the RNT, but one still has to wonder why you'd give up one of the most important and powerful theatre jobs in the world after only a decade in the trenches?
RE: Well, I wanted to reclaim my life. I was running the theatre 18 hours every day for 10 years. It just felt like time to move on. If I had gone on there, it would've been somewhat commonplace, routine, rather than a matter of passion. It's important that I'm always passionate about what I do and it's not just another job.
PBOL: No regrets?
RE: There are times I really miss the collective enterprise, the producing part of it, the entrepreneur leading a company and trying to make the whole greater than the parts. But I just couldn't go on. Ten years is a long time. Politicians don't last that long (although despots tend to stay in place). And I thought it was time somebody else should have a go. PBOL: With Trevor Nunn stepping down, indeed, someone else will. Any thoughts on his potential successor?
RE: There seem to be three on the inside track: Stephen Daldry, Nicholas Hytner and Sam Mendes. I couldn't say my preference, though any of those three, in their way, would be terrific. But I don't have any input as to that decision.
PBOL: What about Nunn's controversial years at the National. Your thoughts?
RE: I would never indict my predecessors or successors. I'm so aware of the difficulties and how things change. You can't just look at one period and compare it with another. I think Trevor's done some wonderful things, such as when he had an ensemble company for 18 months. He did a succession of productions with the same company, and that made for a very fruitful time. And I can't be the person to indict the succession of musicals. I did do Guys and Dolls, Carousel and Sweeney Todd. Then again, it's wrong, I think, to perceive the National Theatre as a place which is purely there to put on big American musicals. If that's the perception, then that's a shame, and it's obscured a lot of other things that could be focused on.
PBOL: So how should they turn things around?
RE: The National Theatre has to change quite radically. It's a building, it's a conceit. The whole idea of it was devised in the 1960s when society and the theatre had a particular kind of form to it. It's become more and more difficult to occupy very big theatres with plays, particularly new plays. They need to find a way of bringing more work from outside the National. That probably means finding a way of combining very intense ensemble work with opening the doors to more companies who want to use the facilities. Maybe they could make the large-proscenium Lyttelton Theatre into a smaller theatre where more experimental work could flourish. Ultimately, no theatre should be thought of as rigidly immutable. Theatre, like everything, changes.
PBOL: And it's certainly changed wildly in the last hundred years. How do you begin to stuff all that history into six hours of videotape?
RE: When I was commissioned to write and present the series, I realized I couldn't do the series without writing the book first. The process of writing would organize my thoughts. So I recruited a co-writer, Nicholas Wright; we sat down and talked out a narrative, and the narrative was really a kind of historical, "how did we get through the 20th Century?." We decided to start with Shakespeare, because he's underpinned the whole of British theatre throughout the 20th Century. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre were initially both based on a desire to celebrate the work of Shakespeare. He started us off with what I describe as the DNA of British theatre. Then we thought, "What happened with British theatre in the 20th Century?" The Irish was the logical step from that. For 300 years, there hadn't been a great play that wasn't written by an Irishman, and then the Irish transformed and injected life into theatre in the 1920s and 30s. In the 40s and 50s, British theatre was underwritten by American theatre. We got a huge dose of energy from Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the big musical. Then it's back to Britain in 1956 with the Royal Court and John Osborne. I'm not gonna pretend this is an objective overview. This is a partial view, and quite opinionated, especially in the book. I've not ever pretended that I'm dispassionately standing back as an observer. This is a view of a participant.
PBOL: I've seen three episodes of the series and haven't really detected a "bias" yet, except perhaps your hero worship of playwright Harley Granville Barker (Waste), which isn't exactly controversial. Were there elements of the sprawling subject matter that eluded you, that you tried to get across but couldn't quite?
RE: I don't think there's enough about the regional theatre, in both Britain in the U.S. The history is far too often centered on London and New York and misses the tremendous anatomy of work elsewhere.
PBOL: What your series does offer, in abundance, is amazing archival footage, from Peter Brook's white-box Midsummer Night's Dream to a young John Gielgud reciting Shakespeare to the ever-opinionated George Bernard Shaw strutting about. Any personal favorite clips?
RE: There's an interview with Sean O'Casey that's just gold dust, footage of Jason Robards. There's also a clip of Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb and some clips of the early Shakespeare productions.
PBOL: Any chance of theatre mavens getting to see these gems in their entirety?
RE: It might be possible when the BBC starts a satellite channel devoted to the arts, which is in the pipeline. I'm not directly connected, but I'm involved because I'm on the board of the BBC, so I'm occasionally consulted about it.
PBOL: What do you most want readers and viewers to get from reading or watching "Changing Stages"?
RE: I hope they get a sense of tremendous vigor and invention in an art form which is really engaging with the world, rather than putting its head in the sand. What comes across is that theatre and society are in some way very closely linked.
PBOL: And the next hundred years?
RE: I'm very optimistic about the medium. People will still go on making theatre, because there's an appetite for live performance, for telling stories in public. The more we get into the digital age, the more passive people become, so the big question: in what form will [theatre] take? Maybe a lot of the big buildings in which we see theatre...people will resist going into them and want something else. What that is, I can't say. But it's not gonna die. Broadway theatre might, but not the rest. Looking around you'd be hard-pressed to predict its demise.
— By David Lefkowitz