Dame Judi Dench and Sir Trevor Nunn go way back.
The acclaimed director and actress worked together at both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, and are now reunited for the big screen.
Dench plays the title role in Nunn’s wartime thriller Red Joan, inspired by a novel based on the real-life case of scientist Melita Norwood.
Nunn admits he had Dench in mind from the off.
“While I was reading I was thinking ‘Oh my God what a wonderful part for my mate Judi to play the older Joan. And when I put it to her she was immediately interested.”
After whizzing through the novel in just one weekend, Nunn wrote to author Jennie Rooney to ask for permission to turn it into a movie.
Telling the story of Joan Stanley – from her student years in Cambridge in 1938 to her later years in 2000 – it makes use of flashbacks to show actress Sophie Cookson in the role of young Joan.
Nunn says Cookson’s similarities to Dench made her the perfect choice.
“The gorgeously delightful thing about working with young Sophie Cookson is that she is absolutely as outrageous and mischievous and larky off-screen as Judi is.
“I kept being reminded of Judi’s behaviour all those years ago when we first met. Judi is wonderfully mischievous she’s got the most extraordinary naughty sense of humour.
“Sophie is terribly similar in that respect.”
Nunn’s 1979 stage production of Macbeth, starring Dench as Lady Macbeth opposite Sir Ian McKellen’s Macbeth was widely acclaimed.
But the chance for Dench to play a very different role for Nunn a few years later was unexpectedly snatched away.
Speaking about his 1981 world premiere of musical Cats, the director explains: “Very few people know that Judi was also in the original cast of the musical Cats.
“She was passionate to play a cat.
“And when eventually the material about the character Grizabella emerged, Judi was going to do that.
“But then a terrible accident happened late on in rehearsal and Judi snapped her Achilles tendon and she was taken to hospital. Even though we postponed she wasn’t able to do it.
“It’s very extraordinary that Judi is in the upcoming film of Cats.”
Nunn isn’t involved in the movie adaptation, which is due out later this year, and says he thinks it will be very different to his stage version.
“I know it’s not being based at all on the staging and the choreography.
And therefore to some extent I would say not on the characters that we developed in the original show.
“I don’t know how it is being done, only how it isn’t.”
Indeed, very little is known about the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical other than the host of stars attached to the production, and the fact that the cats will be the actual size of cats in the movie.
But how different is it to direct a film from a play?
Nunn of all people would know, having directed the entire Shakespeare canon for the stage as well as six movies.
A veteran of theatre, he says he “absolutely loves working in cinema” and has had “wonderful experiences” in the genre.
“I love that process of being with the camera and 15 people of incredible expertise in every single department are all concentrating on capturing the next 30 seconds of your movie.
“You concentrate on it and eventually you say ‘OK that’s it that’s it, we’ve got that we’re moving on’, and you never go back to it.
“So theatre is all lateral work and movies is all crews creating a mosaic.
“You polish each little bit of the mosaic and then at the end you put the mosaic together into a picture.”
One element of the film Red Joan that Nunn was keen to highlight is the extent to which women were underestimated by society in the 40s.
And that was despite playing a large part in two world wars and being accepted into politics and government at the highest level.
Nunn explains: “Even though young Joan is working at the very highest level in nuclear physics, she’s still treated by other scientists as somebody who would be thought of as the tea maker.”
Indeed, he was shocked to discover that female students at Cambridge’s Newnham College weren’t actually able to receive degrees until the 1950s, despite completing exactly the same exams as their male peers.
Despite society’s progress since those days, it’s notable that a film about a woman – inspired by a real-life figure or not and with her name in the title – is still something of a rarity.
Nunn says this is getting better.
“More and more material in the theatre and on television that is doing hugely well in the movies is responding to not just the #MeToo movement but many different aspects of how we’ve got to reconsider feminism.
“And many more women are being appointed to positions of running theatre or directing theatre or producing or directing movies. That’s all wonderful – we just need more, more, more.”
:: Red Joan is in cinemas now.