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Trevor Nunn and Janet Suzman May Be Brits, but What the Dickens! All the World's Their Stage

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It didn’t seem a union made in Heaven. “There were periods of black despair,” says Trevor Nunn, the head of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, discussing his dozen years with actress Janet Suzman. Especially when they worked together the marriage was a kind of battleground. Janet explains: “Domesticity and professionalism don’t always go together. There has to be mystery in rehearsal, but I could see through Trevor. One can’t be a magician if you can see the tricks.” And then there was the gossip, about which Trevor will say only: “We recognized we would need other friendships. We used to compare rumors.”

Another showbiz marriage down the tubes, eh? Weil, not quite. They remain together and now are proud parents of an 11-month-old first child. Their careers are also flourishing. Nunn, 41, is directing Nicholas Nickleby, RSC’s 8½-hour adaptation of Dickens’ novel about poverty and privilege in 19th-century England, which is Broadway’s hottest (even at $100) new ticket. And this week Suzman, 42, also has a Manhattan debut: as Frieda Lawrence in Priest of Love, a film about English novelist D. H. Lawrence.

Nunn and Suzman marvel at their good fortune and in particular about their son, Joshua. “I didn’t think I was the marrying kind,” observes Janet. Adds Trevor: “We’ve become used to people saying the odds were stacked against us. But we’ve managed.” Indeed, says the best man at their 1969 wedding, Sir Peter Hall, supremo of Britain’s National Theatre: “I’d say their marriage must be very sparky—risky, but alive.”

The Nunn-Suzman partnership is understandably highly charged. She is a breezy and buxom classical drama star who can claim an Oscar nomination—for her lead role in 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra. Trevor is a witty, intense wizard of stagecraft whose influence in the British theater is second only to Hall’s. But as they tell it, Nunn and Suzman have survived as man and wife partly because they split as director and actress.

When they married Trevor had just become chief at RSC, where Janet had first performed in 1963. For a while they tried to balance their roles there. It didn’t work. Trevor says Janet always “felt she had to stand up to me to show there was nothing cozy or nepotistic involved. It did something unnatural to the rehearsal process.” Before the tension did lasting harm, says Trevor, “we decided to cut it out.” Janet left RSC in 1973.

Nickleby is Nunn’s biggest triumph—and the company’s—a staggering production with a 458-page script and 39 actors playing 175 roles. Nunn had long thought Dickens was “the greatest dramatist who never wrote for the stage.” But he did not act on his notion of dramatizing the novelist until after a 1978 trip to the Soviet Union, where he found Leningrad’s Gorky Theater preparing an adaptation of The Pickwick Papers. “Thoroughly ashamed” at having been beaten, he determined to stage Nickleby, an 1839 Dickens novel about a young innocent early in Queen Victoria’s reign. “Dickens was a proselytizer who was conscious of huge evils,” Nunn explains. “And I agree with Nicholas’ outlook, that you can change society if you yourself live better.”

Like Nickleby, Nunn has a working-class background and a powerful social conscience. His father was a cabinetmaker in the port city of Ipswich. As a child, Nunn huddled during wartime air raids under a table in the family’s darkened living room. “The only light was that on the radio dial,” he says. The drama of these experiences foreshadowed his precocious taste for the theater. At 5 he decided to be an actor. “The instinct was always there, to pull faces or grab the limelight,” he says. Then at 13 he became “obsessively religious” and considered becoming an Anglican clergyman: “I realize now that its appeal must have been as another form of acting. I imagined myself in the pulpit before an enraptured congregation.” At 17 he concluded that the ritual was a “theatrical con trick,” and after a year of running his own amateur theater group in Ipswich, he went off on a scholarship to Cambridge.

There he met other stagestruck students, like David Frost and Ian McKellan, star of the Broadway hit Amadeus, and studied English under scholar-critic F.R. Leavis. He taught that “great works of art are capable of changing people’s lives, that artists therefore had a moral guardianship,” Nunn says. He agrees: “Theater has power. It has always been the bit of grit in the machine to make people look at themselves and society afresh.”

It was in student productions at Cambridge that the director in Nunn superseded the actor. He joined RSC as an associate director in 1965, when he was 25. Three years later, when Hall left, Nunn became the company’s youngest chief ever.

Janet had arrived at RSC via Johannesburg, South Africa, where her father was a prosperous Jewish tobacco importer. She was a “recalcitrant” student, she says. “I preferred to read and talk and write poetry.” Though she first got interested in theater at the University of the Witwatersrand, she was then preoccupied with South African politics (her aunt, Helen Suzman, a member of Parliament, was, and is, one of the country’s leading white foes of apartheid). Janet joined futile rallies against the passage of an apartheid bill that segregated English-speaking universities. When she graduated in 1959, she headed for England and acting. “My conscience was saying stay, and my ambition was saying go,” she recalls. “Many of my contemporaries left because they didn’t have enough guts to fight it out. I was in that category.”

She first met Nunn in 1964 in a pub. “We disagreed on every topic that came up,” Trevor says. They did not become close until 1967, when they sat down in a West End hamburger joint to discuss Hall’s proposal that she play Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Nunn began by thinking “she was wrong for the part—too strong, serious and intellectual.” She changed his mind: “She made me laugh. She used words wonderfully and was scathingly funny,” says Nunn. Janet found him “a very friendly little chap with long hair that was a bit dated. But he had a tremendously sure sense of what he wanted.” One thing was her. After shedding their existing romantic attachments, they wed two years later.

Under Nunn RSC has thrived, with 130 actors performing at five theaters in London and Stratford-upon-Avon. But the pressures of his job pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown in 1973, and he fled to Italy for a three-week rest. Janet, he says admiringly, “didn’t take the easy way out of being kind and sweet and generous. She insisted this kind of self-sacrifice had to stop. I recognized it as supportive anger.” Nunn now shares the company’s artistic direction with an associate, Terry Hands, while retaining administrative control.

This has helped the couple deal with the trauma of parenthood. Janet miscarried in 1978, and they had almost given up hope of children when she became pregnant. “I was manically concerned—I didn’t want her to move,” Trevor says. She was calmer about the development, but just as ecstatic about the result. “You survive a bad notice,” she says. “You don’t survive a bad baby.” Janet has since cut back on her acting. “It’s not right for a baby to be brought into the world to be ignored,” she says, “I’ll only do what I desperately want to do.” She and Trevor have a house in London as well as a newly acquired country place 90 miles away “for Joshua to stretch his legs.”

Janet loathes housework, they have no hobbies, and they avoid parties. But they eat out a lot, and above all, they talk. “We actually enjoy being together, just the two of us, having a good rap,” Suzman says. “If you need someone’s intellectual stimulation, and that person happens to be your wife,” Trevor adds contentedly, “then you’re pretty lucky.”