Sir Trevor Nunn, This Wooden O
The final keynote presentation opened with an introduction from Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen about the accomplishments of Trevor Nunn winning either Tony Awards or Lawrence Oliviers; The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Cats, Les Misérables, The Merchant of Venice, Not about Nightingales, and Troilus and Cressida. Everything that Dr. Cohen wanted to say about his 400-page dissertation about The Alchemist, Trevor Nunn created in 2 ½ magical hours with his performance in 1972.
In the final keynote conversation of the Blackfriars Conference given by Trevor Nunn and guided by Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen entitled This Wooden O, they began by discussing the discovery of small theatre in London, hence the endearingly called “shed theatre” at RSC. When they went to name their new theatre, Trevor suggested The Other Place as people would likely call it that anyway, but also because it was a Shakespearean quotation “seek him i’th’ other place” (Hamlet 4.3). The addition of this place allowed for Stratford to be played for one year for an actor, and then a transfer the next year to London to create new works, works that hadn’t been seen in hundreds of years, right in the West End. This led to the addition of the Donmar Warehouse adding difficult and dangerous plays at the Donmar along with the transfer of productions from The Other Place.
The naturalism that Shakespeare moves towards within his productions from the Henry VI’s with strict adherence to verse, then shifting over time towards Hamlet’s shared lines, Macbeth’s whispering. Once you (the actor) believe in every utterance, the lines become true. Whether you have the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare or the convolution within convolution of Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist, the characters become real, human, and funny. These discoveries can only occur in small locations with beautiful acoustics.
The talk then shifted to discuss the space with Trevor’s first reaction being to quote Henry V, speaking about how this space just makes so much sense for that play and those speeches. There (at the time) was the RSC yearning to be identified as the premiere company for Shakespeare, with The Royal Shakespeare Stage (1400-seat theatre) and The Other Place (200-seat theatre), seeking a medium sized theatre. What Trevor Nunn claims one truly need for a good theatre is a space with lovely acoustics hence a renovation plan was made for one of their conference halls. Rather than go for a complete replication of the original Swan, they instead went with a stage that was much deeper to allow for flexible staging.
The conversation then shifted to the Barbican which is the London home to the RSC (1000-seat theatre). To increase the publicity of the RSC, Trevor Nunn created a musical within the space, which allowed for mics in the space at the same time. Even after that time the Barbican continues to mic in that space as the acoustics are constantly a struggle, but the musicals allowed that introduction, even with the push-back of musicals in the wider Shakespeare community at the time.
A story that was shared when the RSC was running very low on funds as the actors worked two-year contracts through arts council grants, but to make it work and keep all 44 actors, the production team formulated The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby an 8-hour marathon of Dickens. The adaptation of the novel kept them employed and sold out the play where the play was then invited to Broadway where it won the Tony Award in each category. The best ideas can come from true adversity.