Richard Eyre’s diaries, titled “National Service,” are a brisk, entertaining ride through the Royal National Theatre. As its Artistic Director from 1987 to 1997, Eyre oversaw his share of hits and misses, and these journals offer up articulate, beautiful, behind-the-scenes dish of that storied public performance forum. (I’ve always called it Disneyland for theater lovers, those Denys Lasdun staircases guiding you from patio to bookshop to cafe to theater to terrace and back around again.)
Eyre is descriptive, emotional, gossipy, and concise. As such “National Service” makes for splendid subway reading: Pick up and leave off at will, and never worry about getting bored, as a new topic is a mere entry away.
Much of the book’s pleasure comes from the way theater superstars wander in and out of the pages. One night it’s dinner with Judi [DENCH!], then a show with Tom [STOPPARD!], and finally drunken pub songs with Fiona [SHAW!]
Of course, AD’ing the National isn’t all stardust and swan songs, not by a long shot. As if the crippling administrative and directorial schedule weren’t enough, Eyre suffered through depression and almost debilitation self-doubt. There was family pain, too: “I must have directed well over a hundred shows; [my dad]’s seen two.”
For humor, perspective, or no reason at all, Eyre frequently quotes the greats. Take, for example–
Picasso: “Critics should mean as much to artists as ornithologists do to birds.”
Michael Codron: “No one likes [the play.] Only the public and the critics.”
Auden: “The theatre has never been any good since actors became gentlemen.”
But Eyre isn’t all theater talk; he’s a deep feeler, frequently astonished by nature: “Gloucestershire. … Idyllic countryside, down a glacial valley, then a river valley, rushes and willow, past a lake, through a wood. As David [Hare] says, a day when you could see the point of England.” He’s also very philosophical, again quoting Auden: “Between the ages of twenty and forty we’re engaged in the process of discussing who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”
“National Service” is, in short, a must-read, a beautiful diary, and an invaluable insight into major figures of the British culture. Save yourself the stress of actually running a theater, and read this instead.