PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Trevor Nunn

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Trevor Nunn Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, takes place over 22 years, from 1968 to 1990 in both Prague and Cambridge, and addresses the roiling changes of that time span.
Trevor Nunn
Trevor Nunn

Those years could be described as the prime of both Stoppard's and his director, Trevor Nunn's, lives. So while Stoppard may have to explain pieces of his play to Nunn, he has not had to fill him in on the events the work depicts, as he might have had to with a director just out of school. Nunn, who directed the London premiere of the drama, is used to time-tripping with Stoppard, having directed the dramatist's Arcadia and The Coast of Utopia in its London premiere. The director, who recently brought his productions of King Lear and The Seagull to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, recently spoke to Playbill.com about his latest visit to Stoppardland.

Playbill.com: You've been spending a lot of time in New York this fall, haven't you?
Trevor Nunn: (Laughs) Uh, well, rather a lot of time. I think my carbon footprint is not very good, because I came over to do a few days getting King Lear and The Seagull into BAM and then I had to go back home. And indeed I had to come back again to do some audition work on Rock 'n' Roll, and then back home, and then I had to start rehearsal.

Playbill.com: You've worked a few times with Tom Stoppard now.
TN: I have indeed. I first met Tom when nobody had really heard of him at all. I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and passionately wanted to do it. Eventually, because I wasn't allowed to do the play, I used Tom to do a version of a Polish play that I was directing for the RSC called Tango. And therefore the first Stoppard words that were ever spoken on a London stage were in that production.

Playbill.com: So you can lay claim to that.
TN: Yes. That was his very first name on a program. I didn't get to do one of Tom's plays myself until Every Good Boy Deserves Favor in, of all places, the Royal Festival Hall, with the London Symphony Orchestra on stage with the actors.

Playbill.com: A lot of people think Stoppard's best play is Arcadia, which you directed.
TN: I've heard people say that. I felt incredibly privileged and lucky to be allowed to do that play. It was a joy. It was the first production I had ever done at the National Theatre. It was before I ran the National Theatre. I knew Tom very well by then, and it was a great delight to have him in the rehearsal room. He very often sits quietly in rehearsals and allows things to proceed, and sometimes he joins the debate. Playbill.com: Having been exposed to so much of his work and writing, where do you think Rock 'n' Roll falls in his oeuvre?
TN: Well, sometimes I have referred to it as The Coast of Utopia, Part V.

Playbill.com: Part V? The Coast of Utopia was a trilogy. Where was Part IV?
TN: We leave The Coast of Utopia a fairly decent while before the October Revolution of 1917, which would be Part IV. This play is all about event in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. But it does refer back to 1917, to so many of the huge social experiments that happened in the 20th century and how catastrophic they were.

Playbill.com: It depicts many events and things which you and Stoppard experienced.
TN: Precisely so. He gave me the play to read, saying "Just read it as a friend." I did just that. I had a cumulative experience of "I know so much of the background of this play." A lot of it is set in Cambridge, which is where I went to university. I knew every reference, every character study of those people in Cambridge. But I also, while I'd never been to Czechoslovakia, I had been to the Soviet Union a couple times on theatre work in the '70s, and I felt so connected to what Tom was writing.

Playbill.com: You and Stoppard are contemporaries. Do you feel that you and he view the world in a similar way?
TN: I feel Tom often enlightens the world for me in a way that I entirely approve of. I think his humanism is his most extraordinary ingredient. The human spirit is what Stoppard writes about and evaluates and celebrates, in the same way that Shakespeare does. Anyway, I felt so connected to this play that when I finished reading it, a bit of paper fluttered out of the script and it said, "I changed my mind. Don't read it as a friend." It was absolutely a joyous release. I already felt that sense of "This is what I would love to do" before being asked to do it.

Playbill.com: Let me ask you about a few of your other projects. Is the plan still to have a Broadway production of Porgy and Bess?
TN: It is. I'm meeting with the American producers soon. This will be my fourth time doing Porgy and Bess. I just think it one of the two of three greatest scores of the 20th century. There was a big struggle to prove that Porgy and Bess was a great opera, and I was part of that struggle. But it's equally possible to prove that Porgy and Bess is a great work of music theatre. I think it's both, rather than neither.

Playbill.com: Is it still set for spring 2008?
TN: I think it's to be a little bit later than that. I think it's to be in the last third of next year.

Playbill.com: And you're going to be taking on a titanic project, a stage version of Gone With the Wind. How big will this production be?
TN: Curiously, a decision that we took a few months ago has had a huge effect on our preparation. We decided that it was kind of an impossibility to go on waiting year in and year out for one of those huge London theatres with 1,600 or 1,800 seats and a huge stage, because they have shows installed that are likely going to last for many years. So I got to thinking in a different way and made a proposal that we could set about the show in very much the same way I set about adapting Charles Dickens's huge 1,000-page novel Nicholas Nickleby. And here we are adapting Margaret Mitchell's 1,000-page novel. With Nickleby, we were able to do that using various techniques and encouraging the audience's involvement. The Mitchell project is developing much in that direction.

Playbill.com: With audience involvement, you mean?
TN: Well, I'm not going to say more, but if you saw Nicholas Nickleby, you would know what I meant about how the performance at times included the audience, was amongst the audience, was around the audience, as well as was on the stage in front of them. We have secured the New London Theatre, which is where we first did Cats. The designer who completely transformed the New London Theatre for Cats is John Napier. So we've got the theatre we want for John to do something completely unexpected. But how do you adapt something that has an epic scale? We have no intention of competing with the film. We're doing something that is theatrical.

Playbill.com: I imagine there will be a lot of attention surrounding the casting of the leads. But perhaps you're not going to go the route of the film director George Cukor and tour the world looking for your Scarlett.
TN: (Laughs) I don't intend to tour the world. My carbon footprint would become more deplorable than it is at the moment. The casting is crucial. The casting should be accurate and fulfill what an audience wants from it.

Playbill.com: Do you want American actors for the leads?
TN: It's very much in debate at the moment. So watch this space.

Playbill.com: Well, they do say the Southern accent is the closest the U.S. has to the English accent.
TN: They do, don't they!