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An Open Letter to Trevor Nunn, in Two Acts:
Playing up to
an audience of eager, yet slightly chippy Danes, the Brit contingent had
perhaps overstated the positiveness of the relationship between dramatists
and theatrical establishment in this country. Here was the cue for Kane,
in the evening session, to cut the self-congratulatory cant and launch
a devastating account of the innumerable ways in which a writer's vision
is often, and for institutionalised reasons, betrayed in this world Mecca
of theatre, the Danes lapped her up.
You and I have, till recently, corresponded amicably. I've counted 20 letters written to you between March 1996 and August 1999 - three and a half years - hardly an oppressive exchange between colleagues. The evidence appears to be that I have a place in contemporary world theatre earning courtesy and respect no less than you for achievement, so I'm bewildered you have now opted for silence. However, observing your silence is preliminary to another more serious matter which might be viewed as an abuse of power. Of that later.
I'm aware this letter may ensure you never present a play of mine during your reign as artistic director of The Royal National Theatre but as our exchanges over the last three and a half years suggest this is unlikely anyway I have nothing to lose. Condemnation may rise like sour odours from some theatrical quarters but, as an 'elder statesman' of the profession I can't care too much about that, and besides, perhaps I have a duty to blow the whistle on behalf of younger generations who follow and will surely become victims of the opportunism which seems rife in this 'unholy trade'.
First we must declare our history. You were artistic director of the R.S.C when in 1971 David Jones, the director in charge of your London season, contracted my play The Journalists which grew up over various drafts and under the watchful and (according to my diary) approving eyes of you and Ronald Bryden (your literary manager who declared this play would be 'the play of the decade'), and which subsequently the actors refused to perform. Why, we shall never know. Actors had never such power before nor since.
My own belief is that the company was under the influence of The Workers Revolutionary Party (not the most politically subtle group) who were confused and indignant that The Journalists portrayed three Tory cabinet ministers who were intelligent. Remember, this was before Maggie Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party. Labour was still in power. I wanted to make the opposition as formidable as possible. Writers, whatever theme they're handling, should never make it easy for themselves. For this reason I believed you should have remained loyal to your writer, who had taken on the kind of challenges expected of playwrights, and to the play you had allowed to be nurtured by your artistic staff. You could have delayed the opening of The Journalists until the following season and cast from the new season's company. Instead you about turned, told my agent you weren't satisfied with the play and that if I re-wrote it (you didn't say how) you'd consider it for the smaller house.
The play's opening had been announced; three other countries had bought the rights and been told that the RSC had insisted upon having the world premiere and so they could not open till then. When you backed down I lost those three foreign productions; the play's reputation was besmirched; and naturally I lost income and credibility.
The next step, a foolish one, was mine. I sued the R.S.C for breaking their contract and for loss of income. You used the best showbiz lawyer in town, I used my cousin-the-lawyer more experienced in house purchases and criminology. This David did not defeat Goliath. After seven years of debilitating spinning-out by your lawyers we settled out of court for a paltry sum. I won a battle and lost the war. God knows what it cost the R.S.C.
In that same 71/72 season David Jones mounted John Arden's 'Island of The Mighty' which caused another rumpus with the actors after which John declared he would never write for the theatre again. He didn't. One playwright felled, one crippled. It was quite a season. The full story has yet to be written. I swore I would never talk to you again, nor did I for 25 years. The work continued pouring out but it was now not easy to find backers. I lived a good and productive - if hair-raising - life on overdrafts writing another 25 plays and 10 volumes of prose.
It was my friend, the late actress, Brenda Bruce, an associate of the R.S.C who urged me to re-establish contact with you. I did. It began in March 1996 with me asking would you listen to the tape of the musical of The Kitchen which my Japanese director, Koichi Kimura, had given me £25,000 to seed. I thought it might interest you to direct it. You courteously replied that you are turning down offers of work in the musical theatre, and that as you were a candidate for the National you would, if chosen, be 'unable to take on any production work in the commercial sector.' When you became artistic director of the NT I proposed it becoming an NT project. You wrote 'The NT is no place from which to contemplate 'commercial' reward…' You later advised that in your experience musicals had to be thoroughly workshopped before they were fit to be listened to. Who was I to argue with the director of 'Cats' and 'Les Miserables'? I accepted the need to develop it further before offering it again.
About a year later, as Richard Eyre announced he was offering Chips With Everything in his last season, I wrote to you about the forthcoming publication of my journal The BIRTH of Shylock and the DEATH of Zero Mostel charting the history of the Broadway production of Shylock, and asked could we meet for lunch to discuss a production of the play at the NT. I pointed out that the production in Birmingham directed by Peter Farago had produced excellent reviews, and that if a luminary group consisting of the Shuberts, Eddie Kulukundis, John Dexter, Jocelyn Herbert and Zero Mostel agreed to be associated with the Broadway production then the play must have some merit.
You replied a few
days later saying you were planning a small theatre production of 'The
Merchant of Venice' for 1998 and:
There never was 'a revisiting of this discussion' but your conclusion that the two plays were not contrasting opposites perplexed me since in Shakespeare's play Shylock and Antonio are enemies whereas in mine they are friends; in the Shakespeare version Shylock is only a grubby money lender, in mine he is also a passionate bibliophile; Shakespeare's Portia adores Bassanio, my Portia despises him for the fortune hunter he is, and so on. Our portrait of each character is utterly different and, further, I introduce new characters.
You then, most promptly, read my new play Denial - about 'the false memory syndrome' which you turned down saying you thought I'd demonised the therapist and had mistakenly introduced money as one of the therapist's concerns. Though I produced written evidence that money was a concern of certain therapists nevertheless I cut out references to money but refrained from further exchange. It seemed to me, besides, that you had failed to lift the play's 'tone' off the page.
Three months later - September of '97 - buoyed up by (to my surprise) superlative reviews for The BIRTH of Shylock and the DEATH of Zero Mostel, I returned to the fray and suggested you invite me to direct Shylock with David Suchet or Henry Goodman as Shylock, John Woodvine as Antonio, Sarah Kestelman as Rivka... You seem not to have replied. But you did reply to my invitation to dine although not with your wife at my house as you did not want us to be 'socially beholding to each other'. Very chilly and strange I thought that. You suggested The Ivy! You were late, profusely apologetic, but the meeting was as friendly as I'd hoped. I knew you would not want to linger longer than was necessary so I let you know I had to be somewhere at the time I gauged you'd want to leave. As I'd asked for the meeting I insisted on paying.
When the moment came
for me to lay my wares before you as in any market-place, you called to
the waiter for paper and pen, and made notes about the three plays I wanted
you to consider. They were:
Before I left I gave you the tape of songs from Letter To A Daughter. I thought you'd find the young composer I'd commissioned, Ben Till, a talent to be considered in the future. I wrote thanking you for your time, and slyly slipped in some excellent reviews of John Retallack's production of Roots adding a fourth project for you to consider in the market place - a production of my film script of The Trilogy in the epic style you had used for David Edgar's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby at the R.S.C.
Our dinner was in March. In August I wrote hoping that now you had successfully mounted 'Oklahoma' you would be able to give attention to the proposals I'd set before you. Fourteen months after our dinner, in May '99, I wrote prompting a response to my letter of August '98, and now added another request. The musical of The Kitchen had developed and I asked could we play it to you on a computerised orchestra with live singers. I'd raised £37,500 of private money to bring it this far and hoped it had therefore earned a hearing by the nation's theatre.
You replied a month later. You were hoping to provide studio space at the N.T and would confirm it on my return from New York where I was launching the U.S edition of The BIRTH of Shylock and the DEATH of Zero Mostel. You had also read The Wedding Feast and Badenheim 1939 which you 'admired and got a great deal out of'. Both plays had been discussed at planning meetings but, you wrote, 'while both were listed for continuing consideration, neither moved to the short list stage of discussion, which is strongly driven by directors expressing their choices of what they want to do next.' You also wrote about Shylock and 'The Merchant of Venice', but I'll touch on that in Act Two. No word about Their Very Own and Golden City.
I replied warmly
to your response: 'I really do appreciate it
in view of all the productions you're involved with in addition to running
the whole show.' Then, never being one for diplomacy, I added:
I have not heard from you since.
I returned from the States to find that no one at the NT knew anything about a date to listen to The Kitchen - musical. I had alerted my team that the 'performance' was to take place but, as no studio space had been booked, the opportunity was lost. My composer, as I'd warned, had to leave to be musical director of an opera in Sweden. There would now be no possibility to give a 'performance' until mid February 2000. I wrote in July expressing disappointment but appreciating the pressure of work, and hoped a new date would be set. Silence. Silence and no return of photographs. I'd been to the 7th Edward Albee Theatre Conference in Alaska where Edward handed me a plaque for 'Distinguished Service In The Theatre'. It was chilling returning to this country.
Could my remark about the public being exposed only to what directors want to direct really be the cause of your silence? Could so few words be a threat to someone as unassailable as you?
Then I saw your production of 'The Merchant of Venice'. Now I was angry. Watching it I thought: to suppress an original play for an interpretation was an abuse of power. I contained my anger and wrote to you once more. 'Now that you've offered your point of view through a rearrangement of Shakespeare's words why don't you permit me to offer an alternative point of view through my words?' Again - silence. Perhaps you think Shylock is not a good play, and only delicacy holds you back from saying so. If so I will reply you are kind but wrong. You may not like what the play says, the utterly different portraitures may make you feel uncomfortable, but from the responses of eminent people within and outside the theatre, from reviews in the countries where it has been performed - Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Japan, UK, even from the unfortunately fated Broadway production in which Zero Mostel died - the evidence confirms it is a play worth offering to a public endlessly exposed to Shakespeare's play. Even now the State Theatre in Ankara has scheduled a production; a translation is being prepared in France; there is renewed interest in New York.
No one invited me to review your production but - obsessive writer that I am - I sat down to write my thoughts on what you had done. Act Two of my open letter to you is therefore in the form of 'a review'. I offer it because on 29th November you are moving your production from The (small) Cottesloe to The (vast) Olivier, and because it raises fundamental issues about the nature of theatre and the relationship between writer and director.
I'm sorry we have to communicate like this. I thought we had developed a relationship. Going through your letters I'm reminded that you made generous efforts to respond, even though it was always a negative response. This 'open letter' will not hurt you. Directors will rally round knowing ranks must close, for their authority cannot be permitted to be questioned. It is the writer who will not be trusted, who will be viewed as the misbehaving child in need of chastisement, and so it will be me to whom this boomerang will return. None of those plays I offered you will ever move from the back to the front burner now. But there it is. At least a debate may open. Precious little debating characterises the theatre these days. As Peter Stein wrote to me some years ago - 'theatre has become a rather simple thing'.
EXPLANATIONS or IMPOSITIONS
thoughts on Trevor Nunn's production of 'The Merchant of Venice'. Cottesloe Theatre, August 1999.
Shakespeare sells. In today's climate he represents safety and familiarity. But what the theatre needs is danger and discovery…Aimé Césaire, a formidable Martinique poet, not only argued that Prospero is the complete totalitarian; he also rewrote Shakespeare's play from the point of view of Caliban, re-inventing him as Malcolm X. Wouldn't it be exciting to see it in The Swan alongside The Tempest? One could, in fact, imagine a whole season of such parallels, with Wesker's Shylock offered as an accompaniment to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
Michael Billington. Guardian. 22 February 1998
On the 1st June 1999 Trevor Nunn, in response to my suggestion that he mount my play Shylock in tandem with his production of 'The Merchant of Venice', replied that there was…
…a production to be done of Shakespeare's problematic play which would in large measure express and encapsulate your play …I am two weeks away from opening that production .. the process has been exhilarating and purgative, discovering things in Shakespeare's text which have always been there but which I suspect have lain undisturbed and unrecognised …
Of course I had to see it. The house was full, the applause enthusiastic. But for me the 'problem' of Shakespeare's play was compounded by Nunn's contortionist production, one exemplifying the temptations and pitfalls confronting the director's craft. He sets 'The Merchant of Venice' in the 1930s.
I reach for a note
I wrote three years ago in my 'notebook'.
To do all these things is to cheat.
Despite Nunn's letter to me suggesting he had discovered things present which had lain undisturbed I found little that had not been 'discovered' before. Jonathan Miller set his production of 'The Merchant of Venice' in Victorian capitalism to show Shylock was simply a capitalist like all the others; David Thacker set his in Yuppy Land for similar reasons. Nunn seems to have set his production in a period which he wants to suggest is decadent, bawdy, brutal and money-grabbing. It could be Germany of the 30s but in that period decadence was the healthy pursuit alongside unhealthy Nazism.
Nunn is not only a clever director he is also a writer's director - which makes him my kind of director, one usually interested in explaining the text rather than imposing his own concept upon the text. So I was disappointed to discover that with 'The Merchant of Venice' of all plays he'd done just that - imposed!
There are of course some splendidly inventive moments like setting scenes in a café where cabaret takes place thus allowing two women to sing a song that is so good one forgives it looking as though it came out of the musical 'Cabaret'. The café also serves to highlight characteristics Nunn wants to impose on Bassanio and his friends who keep skipping off without paying their bills. One amusing moment reminded me of David Suchet's Shylock in John Barton's unpleasant production at the R.S.C many years ago. In the court scene where Portia enters and asks: Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew? Suchet, small and very Jewish looking alongside the tall, Aryan actor playing Antonio, gives a little snort of contempt that Portia can't see for herself who is who. In Nunn's production, similarly, all of Antonio's friends groan at the question as though to say 'what kind of nelly have we here to help Antonio's cause - 'he' can't even see the man is wearing a skull cap and Jewish scarf.'
Other pieces of invention
are unhappy, like presenting the prince of Aragon as a Flamenco dancer
speaking with a cod Spanish accent on top of difficult Shakespearean language
thus rendering him incomprehensible. Sadly, his caricature performance
- replete with a little Flamenco dance - brought forth applause from an
audience intelligent-looking enough to have known better. In fact a lot
of the dialogue was lost because of bad diction or actors speaking with
their backs to half the audience. Henry Goodman as Shylock, and Derbhle
Crotty as Portia gave fine, bold, audible performances, as did Alexander
Hanson as Bassanio, though he looked like a bland stockbroker of whom
the effervescent Portia would tire in a short while.
As in my play Nunn makes Portia angry with the decisions of the court. She looks angrily at Antonio when he asks for Shylock to become a Christian. But whereas both text and relationships in my play justify Portia's anger, in Nunn's production her anger comes from no logical place, and even more confusingly she must at the end of the play be nice to her lover's good friend for whom not long previously she was made to show contempt.
As confusing is the
moment when, before the knife is positioned at his chest, and Bassanio
is embraced farewell by Antonio who asks to be commended to his wife:
'Say how I loved you, speak me well in death
…' Portia, disguised as the lawyer, looks on seeming to realise
there was a homosexual relationship between her husband-to-be and this
man. (The homosexual possibilities were explored in Terry Hands' excellent
R.S.C production, I forget the year.) Poor Portia has to return to Bassanio's
arms after all this, and the actress, brilliant though she is, doesn't
seem to know how to behave now that she's been made aware her husband
is bi-sexual and that his lover is a sadistic bigot. In my play she knows
exactly how she will behave because everything that has gone before substantiates
her anger. She is on the side of Shylock and Antonio who I conceived as
friends, and when Shylock has been stripped of his wealth and is off to
live his last days in Jerusalem, she tells a sad Antonio (bereft of his
friend) that she will…
Portia is not the
only character confused in Nunn's production, there's poor Jessica, too.
It is obvious in Shakespeare's play that she hates her father and wishes
to flee from him into Lorenzo's arms but in a short time, for no reason
offered in the text or from anything that's happened, she is sad and regretful,
which is all part of the cheating process for, as my 'note' implies, you
can make an actor play sadness and regret even though nothing in the play
prompts such melancholy, and you can find moments between which such melancholy
can be inserted.
Jessica's forced melancholy is held till the end, pervading and cleverly commenting on all the dreadful jocularity which follows to do with Portia and Nerissa upbraiding their men over a ring. And though Shakespeare's text has them leaving the stage in order to go make early morning love, with bawdy talk of soreness and rings, Nunn has them remain in sad couples listening to a wretched Jessica sing a Jewish song we'd heard her sing earlier with her father. Lorenzo, her husband to be, kneels down to her wondering - who is this woman I've chosen for a wife? The moment teeters on the edge of shmultz.
My text also calls for a sad song to be sung at the end, but it's a sad Spanish Sephardic song sung by Nerissa to link the sad ruins of the court scene to the last Belmont scene of loss and mistake, and its melancholy has been earned by every thing that's happened. Jessica's melancholy in Nunn's production has not been earned by anything she's done or said, and certainly doesn't belong to the jovial mood of celebration implied by the text. Everything that Shakespeare has given to his characters points to gaiety and gratitude: Antonio's life has been saved and, what luck, three of his ships have come home safe; the Christian women have forgiven their men for parting with their rings; love, honour, wealth have been tangibly restored. Nunn ignores all this in order to impose his 'concept'. Despite whatever the text says, no matter that nothing in the writing supports the concept, Jessica will be sad, Shylock will be remembered., melancholy will be imposed.
I'm a puritan in
art. I believe everything has to be earned - each tear, each laugh, each
death. Nunn imposes a mood upon the play which nowhere is earned by the
text or by what has taken place, finding gaps to be filled with moody
silences which the play cannot substantiate.
Finally the cheating turns absurd. Portia declares that Antonio must prepare his bosom for the knife. Shylock whoops in glee. O noble judge! O excellent young man! She asks him to have some surgeons standing by to stem the blood lest he bleed to death. But the Shylock who acted with seemingly nerve-racking doubts a few moments earlier, trying to make us think he might be human after all (he didn't voice them, he couldn't, Shakespeare didn't give him any lines of doubt to voice), seems now to have forgotten doubt, and asks: Is it so nominated in the bond? Suddenly he can't wait to start cutting. How swiftly his doubts flew! We pause to have a few declarations of love between Bassanio and Antonio (and for the sake of hanging on to the plot there is a comic pause in the midst of these ghastly happenings to make mention of rings and unforgiving wives), and then Portia, despite knowing she's got a trick up her sleeve, leads Shylock on and allows Antonio's fear to be stretched across agonising minutes. A pound of that same merchant's flesh is thine …Shylock whoops again. Most rightful judge! Portia continues stretching the agony … The law allows it, and the court awards it. Shylock is still whooping. Most learned judge! a sentence, come prepare.
But he's not whooping in behaviour quite as much as Shakespeare's words imply. Nunn is still manipulating Shakespeare's character, contorting him to play out his concept. 'Listen!' the concept is saying, 'those whooping words are being uttered with uncertainty. Why, there's honour in the old Jew after all.' And then comes the longest cheat of all. Shylock holds the knife (it seems like forever) in front of Antonio's chest, moving forward to cut then moving back as though doubt assailed him again. First of one mind then of another. The doubts won't go away. The knife hovers. The Jew may be human after all. He is, he is not, he is, he is not, he is … he is … but no, finally, he most certainly is not. He's made up his mind. Revenge will be his. He's going to cut. At which point Portia saves the day - at least for everyone except poor old Shylock. Tarry a little, there is something else … Tarry? Tarry? That's all Shylock has been doing - tarrying. With his doubts, tarrying, tarrying. She cautions him famously: This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. Foiled! … nor cut thou less nor more but just a pound of flesh … Poor, wretched Jew.
But what about poor wretched Antonio who has been made by Shakespeare to wait in awful suspense to know his fate? After all Portia knew from the start that the bond made no sense, she could have saved Antonio a lot of angst by letting him know this as soon as she entered the court room. And then, after the writer, along comes the director who stretches the agony even longer by having Shylock act out his protracted, silent hesitancy - a hesitancy for which there is absolutely no substance in the text. It is an imposed hesitancy.
And what about this question of the Jew and revenge? Shakespeare has him saying - very persuasively and appealingly: If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? - why revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. But Jews are the least revengeful people in the world. The sanctity of human life - because it was created in God's image - is at the centre of Jewish teaching. Six million gassed, and do we hear of bombs planted by Jews in Germany? Do we hear of innocent Germans gunned down in their restaurants? Are there any known revenges by Jews on the Poles and the Russians for countless pogroms of the past? My mother never taught me revenge. On the contrary, Jewish parents whisper to their children: don't be like them! Those cruel goyim, don't be like them! Shakespeare got it utterly wrong. His Shylock expresses the most un-Jewish thought of all; the Jew is commanded not to behave in the inhuman way others behave. He doesn't always listen of course but it remains the driving force behind most Jewish thought and action. Shylock's call for revenge belongs less to the playwright's character than to the playwright cannily unable to resist a good dramatic line of thought regardless of its ethnic veracity.
Now, dear Trevor, that I've seen your production I understand why you couldn't allow my play to sit in tandem alongside it - your concept struggles to echo the spirit of my play. The echo is faint, inevitably. Concepts are lesser than realisations. And it saddens me that just as you thought there were 'things present in Shakespeare's text which have always been there … undisturbed and unrecognised …' you didn't consider the possibility there might be things present in my play 'undisturbed and unrecognised' waiting to be discovered.
You've applied your concept in this production, perhaps now you will pause and generously consider there might be as much merit in an original play as there is in an interpretation.
© Arnold Wesker 1999