Sir Trevor Nunn: H8, Downing
Theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn wants to know what on Earth Second Year Natural Sciences student Ameera Cunningham is doing in his room.
“It is absolutely overwhelming – chokingly emotional – to step back into this room that I occupied for the whole of my last year in College. It was an amazing year,” says theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn (Downing, 1959). “And so consequently, I’ve got this all-important question: what the hell are you doing in my room?!”
Nunn and Ameera Cunningham (Natural Sciences, Second Year), H8’s current occupant, explode into laughter. In fact, H8 has changed rather dramatically in the intervening 64 years. Where Nunn had his bed is now an en suite bathroom. What was a working fireplace (“The porters would deliver fire ingredients during the winter months,” he recalls) has been boarded up, its role performed today by a large radiator.
But the feel of the room remains the same, thanks to its soaring ceiling and a pair of tall sash windows that flood H8 with light. “I thought it had so much potential,” says Cunningham. Nunn agrees: “It’s so spectacular and unexpected. Ceiling height can make you feel uplifted and a low ceiling can make you feel crushed. I think these things are extraordinarily influential.”
Cunningham’s desk is in the same spot (between those glorious windows) that Nunn had his. Not that it’s had much use: Cunningham prefers the library. Nunn, on the other hand, admits he was not overly concerned with academic success during his time at Downing.
“I absolutely shamed myself, the College and my scholarship by being awarded a Third in my prelims – and even that was probably scraped,” says the director. “Because right from the word go I came across the Amateur Dramatic Club. “I met students by the name of Derek Jacobi (St John’s 1957), Ian McKellen (St Catharine’s 1958) and Corin Redgrave (King’s 1958), and consequently I was doing several productions in my first year. Of course, what I got at the end of the first year was a Third!”
Such a result might motivate some to change their ways. Not Nunn. “I was non-stop doing theatre, right the way through my third year. During my Finals, I was directing a Marlowe Society production and the Footlights Revue at the same time. So when I was awarded a 2:2, it was a miracle.”
Cunningham’s schedule doesn’t give her much time for extracurriculars – “My memory isn’t amazing so I have to work at it,” she admits – and maintaining her own high academic standards takes a lot of hours, she says, professing a desire to eventually move into an MSc in Pharmacology and a career in research. “I’ve had a passion for drug research going all the way back to my A-level chemistry extended project on using graphene and graphene oxide as scaffolds for drug delivery for cancer.”
Nonetheless, she has also recently become a member of the Downing College Boat Club and is “really excited, not just for the fitness side, but also the social side of things”. Nunn scoffs at this news: “But we’re not a rowing College, are we?” Times have changed, Cunningham tells him: “We’re pretty good now, rowing is actually quite popular.” “Gosh,” says Nunn. “We were quite proud of the fact that we weren’t!”
Cunningham’s main pastime, however, is music. “It’s really important for me, I’m constantly listening,” she says. “I have about 2,500 songs on my phone.” Nunn can relate, recalling many a late night listening to records in the room across the quad of his friend Dave Gelly (Downing 1958), who went on to become a respected jazz musician and music journalist. Nunn didn’t have a record player himself, so H8 was a place for discussion and debate, mainly about the shows he and his fellow student theatre-makers were involved with. “I had lots of wonderful conversations in this room,” says Nunn. And it’s clear that those conversations have never really stopped.
Sir Trevor Nunn CBE is an award-winning theatre director. Ameera Cunningham plans a career in medical research.