Director Richard Eyre, Cheltenham Literature Festival

PUBLISHED: 23:16 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:15 20 February 2013

Richard Eyre, Cheltenham Literature Festival

Richard Eyre, Cheltenham Literature Festival

Richard Eyre has worked with the greats. So, as guest director at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival, how on earth to choose who should appear at the prestigious event...?

Richard Eyre has worked with the greats. So, as guest director at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival, how on earth to choose who should appear at the prestigious event...?

"My father's family had some faint fibre of a connection with the Victorian passion for exploration... the only unexplored territory now is the territory of the human soul." "A woman said to Matisse, 'Surely the arm of this woman is too long?' To which Matisse replied, 'It's not an arm, Madame, it's a picture.'"

Utopia & other places, Richard Eyre one morning, the Renaissance patron, Piero de' Medici awoke to discover, to his great delight, that there had been a rare fall of snow in Florence. Coming from a family of art lovers, he knew exactly how he wanted to celebrate this improbable event: he commanded the 18-year-old Michelangelo to make a snowman in the courtyard of his palace. Who knows exactly what the burgeoning artist created with that ephemeral material, more pliable than clay, whiter than alabaster? There were no cameras to record the event; no sketches, even, of the design. Just a young boy, throwing snowballs, skidding on ice, sculpting a work of art, making the most of a moment in time.

There are those who call Piero a fool: how could he have commissioned a work of

genius that would melt into the next day's sunlight? And then there are others, like Richard Eyre, who understand... who understand that some things are even more perfect when they rely on images in the mind - on memories passed down through generations - far more perfect than when they are immutably painted onto canvas, chiselled into stone, or burned onto DVDs. Michalangelo's snow sculpture is so much a symbol, it's hard to believe the event ever took place.

"I think it is genuine but I've so often invoked it that I almost feel I made it up," Richard Eyre admits. "I think it's in Vasari, Lives of the Artists; but, yes, it's a great fairytale and a perfect metaphor for theatre." Indeed. Who knows whether Roscius, that most famous of Roman actors, would have a modern audience gripping their seats - or dissolving into embarrassed tittering; whether Garrick's Richard III would seem the epitome of naturalism that his 18th century audience so admired; or would it appear declamatory and false to a world that worships Robert De Niro? It matters not. As there were no video cameras to record it, theirs remain iconic performances: perfection melting into the next day's sunshine.

"Exactly," Richard agrees. "So they live in memory and in conversation. If we were able to see the 'great performances', we would probably be very critical of them. People were trying to be natural 400 years ago but, clearly, the form of naturalness was very stylized. And even if we look at movies of the '40s, they look to us like a very exaggerated form of naturalism. Probably to today's generation, Marlon Brando seems excessive and mannered; Robert De Niro now is the paragon of naturalism but maybe that will change in a few years." He cites the Michelangelo story in the brochure for Cheltenham Literature Festival. This year, he's one of the guest directors, which means he gets to schedule a couple of the events: a dubious honour, perhaps. For a director who's worked with all the greats - Jonathan Pryce and Daniel

Day-Lewis in Hamlet; Ian McKellen in Richard III; Ian Holm in King Lear; as well as with playwrights David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Howard Brenton, Alan Bennett (the dazzling list goes on), deciding on just two events must have been an impossible choice.

Except that he knows and has worked with Dame Judi Dench. She's not only an old friend; she's an actress on whom he has bestowed a whole host of epithets, from 'instinctive' to 'genius'. So that's it: the two of them are going to be in conversation at The Centaur on October 10. What will Richard be asking her? He laughs. "I hadn't thought!" he says. "She's a very old friend so in some ways it's an artificial conversation - except that there are a lot of things I don't think I have spoken to her about, especially as she's quite bashful: what it is that makes her want to act; what it is that acting gives her; and what the process means for her, I guess."

In his wonderfully-written autobiography, he describes working with her almost with a sense of panic (though maybe that's too strong a word). During rehearsals, the elements of her performance seem disparate, he says, until, invisibly, all comes together into a marvellous synchronicity. Why is she so mesmerizing? "Well, there's an innate quality that is irreducible: clearly some extraordinary gift. But talent without character is nothing, and she has an extraordinary character. She's an example of someone who is inherently very generous and she's generous because she invariably or instinctively is able to empathise with the other person. That's one of the reasons she's such a remarkable actress: she is able to put herself in someone else's shoes both in life and in art."

That's certainly one apposite definition of great acting. But there are others. One of the funniest moments in his autobiography, Utopia & other places, comes when Richard visits a mental hospital during a course of research for a play he's directing. He speaks at length to a doctor who gives him a highly useful and expert description of the pathology of schizophrenia. After 20 minutes, the doctor remarks, "You know why I'm here, don't you? The Prime Minister is trying to kill me." Only then, says Eyre, did I realise the doctor was a patient. Clearly, there are actors in all walks of life.

He's worked with Dame Judi on two of his most important films: Notes on a Scandal and Iris. Both have the ability to shock and discomfort, Notes more conventionally so. As a combination of quasi-lesbian stalker and underage heterosexual sex, it's "a rich brew," he laughs. Iris, on the other hand, is deeply moving, detailing the descent of philosopher/novelist Iris Murdoch into Alzheimer's: someone with an extraordinary mind becoming someone with barely any mind. At one point, Iris looks with puzzlement at an open door and asks: "Which side do I go?" Richard Eyre had already seen that scene played out once before: his own mother asked the same question of his father during her struggle with dementia. It's a film that entertains (strange word, in the circumstances, but undeniably true), enchants and, yes, educates too. Was that important to him?

"I think in a way that all good drama is in some sense educational - but I think that's true of all art: it explains the world to you. People with great gifts can make you hear and see the world differently, and look at society differently. "But it's rather reductive to talk about things in educational terms. It's a bit like saying King Lear tells you an awful lot about old men and fathers and daughters. It does teach you about the world, but I also think it's the greatest play ever written. When people said to Freud, 'You've

invented a way of describing the world of the mind', he would say, 'I've done nothing

that isn't in Shakespeare'." Eyre started out as an actor himself, though he says he chose the profession "much as I might have become a soldier in the nineteenth century." At Cambridge, where he switched from reading science to English, he took part in various productions, including one directed by Trevor Nunn; but he failed to discover at that point, so he says, that he was a bad actor.

He did learn an awful lot about plays, though. One of his tutors was Kingsley Amis who would read over Eyre's erudite essays on Shakespeare comedies, peppered with quotes from renowned commentators, and ask, "But what do you think of this play? It says it's a comedy. Fine. But does it have any decent jokes?" It was when Eyre moved into directing that he found his true role. In 1973, he took up post as artistic director at the Nottingham Playhouse, where he began to form many of his most enduring and valued professional relationships, with Trevor Griffiths, David Hare and Howard Brenton.

As a director, he began to do what he does best: explore the territory of the soul. "I'm very interested in social relationships - how families work or how families don't work, and how individuals balance their lives against the group," he says. "The difference between the public and the private. I think that's one of the reasons everybody is so drawn towards Shakespeare because that's some of his invention: he's constantly obsessed by the relationship between people's private relationships and their public relationships; his plays oscillate between big public scenes and private scenes. To find a form of dealing with that is absolutely an act of genius. If there's a reason British theatre has such persistent vitality, it is precisely because we have the gift of Shakespeare. It's in our DNA." He gives various descriptions of the work of a director, among the most elucidating of which is: "A director is usually a cook; he assembles the best ingredients, follows his recipe and serves it up as impressively as he can. Occasionally, and very rarely, a director is an alchemist, transforming dross into theatrical, even real, gold."

Certainly, he would say, he's had very little dross to work with; but certainly, too, he has produced gold. He ran the Royal National Theatre from 1988 until 1997, the year he collected his knighthood. His entertaining diaries from that period - published as National Service - won the Theatre Book Prize. Some of his work, of course, has melted like the snowman; but others are not only there to be viewed, but have particular resonance for today. In 1988, he directed the Falklands War film Tumbledown, which won him a BAFTA. "Because of Afghanistan, I think about it almost every day," he says. "Tumbledown became politically controversial because there were so many lobbying groups, like the Scots Guards, and pressure was put on the board of the BBC not to make the film. But nobody had read a word of the script; this was long before it was shot. Of course, in a sense it wasn't really about politics; it was about the nature of soldiering. It was about the equation between what soldiers have to do and why they're doing it, which implicitly is a political question: war is politics by other means."

Listening to him, you get the impression that he's not pro controversy for controversy's sake; but that he relishes times when film and theatre change lives; when they shake society; when they change political directions. He talks with yearning about visiting Romania in the '70s and '80s, initially as part of a cultural exchange programme sponsored by the British Council. Plans to stage Hamlet over there almost came to grief when the Ministry tried to ban it. "The power of drama during the Ceausescu years was absolutely fantastic and, though it's an unpleasant way of looking at it, it was actually slightly enviable. I used to go to Bucharest and envy the theatre because it had so much power. It was very difficult for the government because you can't stop people performing Hamlet, but neither can you stop audiences from seeing parallels between Claudius and Ceausescu."

Theatre is there to mirror the world. As Matisse pointed out, it's not reality: it's a necessarily distorted image. Nevertheless, the reflection is one of human life; it digs out truths and changes our perceptions. Even in a recession, as now, audiences haven't declined. People need it. "It's all part of wellbeing," Richard Eyre says. So what's next? Well, he's directing an eight-minute, silent film, written by William Boyd, that's been commissioned by Sky for Christmas. And he's directing a production of Carmen for the Metropolitan Opera's 2009-2010 season in New York, starring Angela Gheorghiu and her husband Roberto Algana. It's a job that will take him away from his Cotswold cottage, with its beautiful garden that tumbles down the slopes of a valley outside Stroud. He's enjoyed living here with his wife, Sue Birtwistle, a TV producer, for the last 15 years. Not that he thinks of directing as a job.

"I think the great privilege and the great gift is being able to do a job that secretly you'd pay to do. That's one of the dividers in the world: people who do their jobs because it's just a means of earning their living; and people who have jobs which engage their passions and which are, in a sense, inseparable from their lives," he says. And if some of it melts away, like Michelangelo's snowman, it doesn't matter. It was the sculpting that counted.

Sir Richard Eyre will be in conversation with Dame Judi Dench on Saturday, October 10 at 4pm in The Centaur, as part of Cheltenham Literature Festival. Later that day, at 8.45pm, Sir Richard will be in discussion with award-winning screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, in the Parabola Arts Centre. For more information and to book tickets, ring the box office on 0844 576 8970 or log onto

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