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Richard Eyre at the 2014 Olivier Awards with MasterCard (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Richard Eyre at the 2014 Olivier Awards with MasterCard (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Exclusive: Richard Eyre book extracts

Published 27 October 2014

In his new book What Do I Know?, Richard Eyre, leading director and former head of the National Theatre, reflects on people he has worked with, ideas he has struggled with, and things that have moved him.

We’re lucky enough to be able to offer you a peek into the pages of the tome that is already heading Official London Theatre’s Christmas list – Mum, that’s a hint – along with musical The Phantom Of The Opera socks and our own red Jersey Boys jackets.

So before you charge off to Waterstones, Foyles or any other reputable book store, discover Eyre’s views…

… on Dame Judi Dench

I think Judi is a genius and I know exactly how she would react if I said so to her face. ‘Oh, Rich,’ she’d say and shrug like a cat arching its back. And then she’d laugh. That word ‘genius’ is rather debased currency—we tend to sprinkle it about like Italian waiters with peppermills—but I think it’s accurate to call Judi a genius, because she’s one of those people, like Oscar Peterson or Yehudi Menuhin or Cary Grant, who appear to do what they do brilliantly as if it cost them nothing, as if it was effortless. Judi acts like Matisse draws, never taking his hand from the page.

… on The Pajama Game

The Pajama Game was the first musical I heard—I say ‘heard’ because until now I’ve never seen it [Richard directed the recent Chichester Festival/West End production], or at least only in the rather unsatisfactory 1957 film which starred Doris Day. It was one of the first albums (‘long playing’—i.e. 33rpm) that my sister owned and, like it or not, I was obliged at the age of twelve to listen to the British cast of the West End production until I knew the score backwards. I’ve been haunted by it ever since. I had never seen a musical in a theatre. I had never seen a play in a theatre. So, for a while, until she bought My Fair Lady and West Side Story and I bought Bill Haley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Buddy Holly and Tommy Steele, the vinyl version of The Pajama Gamewas the centre of my musical and theatrical universe.

… on Arthur Miller

A few years ago I directed the first production of The Crucible on Broadway since its opening nearly 50 years previously. He loved our production and was closely involved with rehearsals. I never got over the joy and pride of sitting beside Arthur as this great play unfolded in front of us while he beamed and muttered: ‘It’s damned good stuff, this.’ We performed it shortly after the Patriot Act had been introduced. Everyone who saw it said it was ‘timely’. What did they mean exactly? That it was timeless.

… on Hedda Gabler

Part of what is so alluring—and daring—about Hedda Gabler is its wit, its unexpected lack of solemnity, its defiance of an audience’s expectations, its reluctance to conform to reductive theory. Is there any other dramatic heroine who possesses such an extraordinary confection of characteristics as Hedda? She’s feisty, droll and intelligent, yet fatally ignorant of the world and herself. She’s snobbish, mean-spirited, small-minded, conservative, cold, bored, vicious; sexually eager but terrified of sex, ambitious to be bohemian but frightened of scandal, a desperate romantic fantasist but unable to sustain any loving relationship with anyone, including herself. And yet, in spite of all this, she mesmerises us and compels our pity.

… on Alan Bennett

He’s extraordinarily intelligent and learned—in some ways the epitome of bookish high culture—and his work is intellectually ambitious. Even his most complicated ideas about art are unfailingly communicated in a language that is accessible without patronising and, what’s more, full of jokes. He has an unfailing eye and ear for the minutiae of ordinary life—the scraps of speech overheard on the bus or in the supermarket. His literary voice is universally recognisable: it’s the voice of the mildly oppressed or suppressed, the silent victims of petty domestic tyranny (mostly women), the murmurs of lives not quite realised.

… on the National Theatre

The National Theatre can only justify its existence by what appears on its three stages. To name its successes over the past 50 years is more or less to recite a litany of the landmarks of British theatre: classics, musicals, unknown old plays and unseen new plays, from Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead and Equus, to This House and London Road. I was lucky with my first outing—Guys And Dolls, the first musical the NT had ever produced, even though Laurence Olivier had toyed with doing it. A reviewer said of the show that ‘it was as much fun as you can have legally’; if that was true for the audience it was doubly true for me. I became the NT’s Director and had many other happy experiences—David Hare’s trilogy about the state of Britain, Richard III with Ian McKellen, King Lear with Ian Holm, Tom Stoppard’s Invention Of Love, plays by Christopher Hampton, Tony Harrison, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Eduardo De Filippo and more. I had some disasters too painful to recollect and I discovered that to run the National Theatre you have to learn the opposite of schadenfreude (joy in other people’s failure): you have to take pleasure and pride in other people’s successes. I had the time of my life.

… on Guys And Dolls

People say to me, perhaps ingratiatingly, that it’s too soon to put on another production of Guys And Dolls. I don’t understand this: there should always be a production of Guys And Dolls in London—indeed, I’m astonished that no party has touted the need for an Act of Parliament to guarantee it. If I have any churlish feelings at all about a new production, it’s a sense of envy: it doesn’t seem fair for them to be paid to have so much fun. As Bob Hoskins said on more than one occasion when we were rehearsing: ‘This beats working.’

What Do I Know?: People, Politics And The Arts by Richard Eyre is out now, published by Nick Hern Books, £20 hardback.

"Judi [Dench] acts like Matisse draws, never taking his hand from the page."

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