As Richard Eyre returns to the National Theatre to direct 'The Observer', he talks to Caroline McGinn about a decade of political change 'The Observer' previews at the National Theatre, Cottesloe from Wed May 13.
In Richard Eyre's final year as the boss of the National Theatre, a beleaguered prime minister hamstrung by sleazy colleagues had lost the will of his own backbenchers as well as that of the nation. It sounds so familiar - the difference being that, back in 1997, things could only get better for Blair's economically buoyant, publicly bankrolled Cool Britannia. 'Who would have believed that in a decade the New Labour party would be entirely discredited?' reflects Eyre, who has returned to the National this month to direct Matt Charman's new play, 'The Observer', which questions British international intervention.
Theatre's big beasts (like the late Harold Pinter, who demanded Blair's trial for war crimes in his Nobel acceptance speech) were some of New Labour's first party poopers. Like David Hare, whose 1993 state-of-the-nation trilogy was a cornerstone achievement of Eyre's National, the mild, cautiously spoken director is one of the 'Luvvies Labour lost'. His film 'Notes on a Scandal' is one of film subsidy's transatlantic success stories, but for Eyre, even Labour's legacy in the arts to which they've given 'stability and enhanced funding' is mixed.
'Blair always made the right noises. But they were absolutely terrified of high art: they fell over themselves to cosy up to elite sportsmen but they couldn't see that the public could admire someone who writes.' Unlike his successors Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner, Eyre ran the National during leaner Conservative years. Thatcher, he says, was 'absolutely the enemy of imagination'. But he's surprisingly upbeat about the new Tories: 'Michael Gove is an unusual man who believes in arts education. I've always argued, unsuccessfully, that there's no point in giving money to the arts unless you educate people in them. I'm the classic example of alienation: I grew up in a middle-class household without art or books. I was going to be a chemical engineer until I went to the theatre for the first time at 16 and was blown away by it.'
It's easy to see why New Labour's philistine lack of aspiration gets Eyre's goat, with the cultivated blokiness of politicians like Alastair Campbell and Derek Draper and the box-ticking emphasis on access and utility. Labour's achievements in widening access are undeniable: free museum entry increased attendance by 75 per cent. But the touchy-feelyness that New Labour made so much a part of public life, though it enabled Blair to reach out to the tragedy of Princess Di, never extended to a recognition that high culture, in giving form to feeling, might be an end in itself.
'In the month I left the National, Dickie Attenborough brought Tony Blair to see my production of “King Lear”,' recalls Eyre wryly. 'Cherie was saying how infuriated they were that the press had said his Di speech had been written as a script.' Blair was struck by one of Shakespeare's final lines, “Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say.” 'He asked me if I'd put it in.'
Eyre believes his own legacy at the National was to make it 'an indispensable part of London life.' With 'The Last Cigarette' in the commercial West End he notes that theatre's current strength 'breaks the heart of publishers'. 'A bestselling hardback shifts 5,000 copies at £20. But here you'll sell 50,000 seats at up to £60 ticket.' Arts subsidies are already falling (Arts Council England lost £4 million in last month's budget). They'd be unlikely to increase under the Conservatives. But you can guarantee that, whoever's running the show in the Houses across the river, the National Theatre will be using its considerable platform to
'The Observer' previews at the National Theatre, Cottesloe from Wed May 13.
The Observer' previews at the National Theatre, Cottesloe from Wed May 13.