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Nicholas Hytner: the final lap

Nicholas Hytner in rehearsal for Othello. Photo: Johan Persson

The 1971 staging of Coriolanus did not go down in history as one of the National Theatre’s landmark productions.

Anthony Hopkins had been drafted in as a last minute replacement for the original lead, Christopher Plummer, who had walked out of rehearsals following what one might term ‘artistic differences’ with the directors’ Brechtian plans for the play. Reviews were savage, although forgiving of Hopkins.

But sitting in the auditorium one Saturday afternoon during the show’s run at the Old Vic Theatre, oblivious to the backstage disagreements and the critical reaction, was a young Nicholas Hytner. In his early teens and on a family trip to London from his home in Manchester, he had left his parents at the zoo to seek out a matinee ticket for his first taste of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, then housed at the Old Vic. Even without the great Olivier on stage, it made an impression.

Six years later, Hytner moved to London. He was living in a flat on The Cut – just up the road from the Old Vic – above a fried chicken shop. By then, the National had moved as well – to its concrete home on the Southbank – and Hytner resumed a love affair with a theatre company and a building that would come to define a large tranche of his professional life.

Aside from repeated visits as an audience member – often standing at the back of the theatre – the young director’s first experience of the company came in the early 1980s when Peter Hall was running the place. Hall was, as Hytner puts it, “doing him a kindness”, taking half an hour out of his day to answer questions from an aspiring theatre director who had written him a letter – a tradition that, when possible, Hytner continues to this day, in precisely the same office, almost entirely unchanged except for some new bookshelves.

50 years from now, the best actors will still work here, the best directors will work here, the best writers will work here – from that point of view, the job will always be easy

That meeting didn’t lead to an offer of work and Hytner continued to progress his career away from the National, mainly in opera. In fact, his full National debut came under the theatre’s next director Richard Eyre, who, in 1989, invited him to direct Ghetto by Joshua Sobol.

Like many of Hytner’s future successes, it was performed on the Olivier stage.

“I was never scared of it, because I’d done the Coliseum by that time. The size never bothered me,” he says, reflecting on an auditorium that can intimidate actors, directors and designers. “I’ve always loved it and I thought one of the things that was most important 10 years ago [when he became director] was to re-galvanise directors in the Olivier.

“When I started out in the late 70s, where I was headed was main stage shows – that’s what I wanted to do – and the excellence of the studio theatre in the 80s and 90s became something of a problem for this place, for the West End, for the idea of large-scale theatre that plays to lots of people. So, it felt really important to make the Olivier the place you wanted to work. And, if you don’t or you can’t, then you’re a bit of a wuss.”

Scale is clearly important to Hytner – and he sees it as something that sets the National apart from other theatres.

“I only exaggerate slightly when I say that I’ve never seen the big deal of being able to do these great plays as an actor or a director or designer when you’re in a small room with 200 people. But the reason I say that is because I’m so committed to the idea of public theatre at the centre of the community. If you can’t play it to 1,100 people at a time, you can’t call yourself the National Theatre, you can’t call upon the public purse the way we do.”

“We played Othello to something like 90,000 people last Thursday on one night [via National Theatre Live in cinemas] and that nearly doubles the 110,000 people we’ve played to in the house. And that 90,000 will double again once it’s been seen in encore screenings and all over the world. Now that you can play Othello to a quarter of a million people, that’s very different from playing it to 200 people a night.”

I think the theatres on the South Bank are the ideal theatres

He refers to how the National’s auditoria – especially the Olivier – hark back to the traditions of the original Globe, theatres from the late 16th and early 17th century, adding: “I think our theatre is a public theatre. I think the theatres on the South Bank are the ideal theatres – they are large, communal, epic; they have narrative as well as emotional and intellectual muscle because that is the best way of engaging large numbers of people, they address something like a cross section of the community, they are free-for-all and disreputable, they on the South Bank because they don’t have the imprimatur of government or church or city. All that seems to me to be a good idea to try to reproduce.”

The National has no official charter – no guiding principles that Hytner, his predecessors and his successor have to abide by. There is, however, a series of principles set out in a pamphlet issued in 1909 by the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre committee (members included Harley Granville Barker, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Wing Pinero):

1 to keep the plays of Shakespeare in repertory;

2 to revive whatever else is vital in English classical drama;

3 to prevent recent plays of great merit from falling into oblivion

4 to produce new plays and to further the development of new drama;

5 to produce translations of representative works of foreign drama, ancient and modern;

6 to stimulate the art of acting through the varied opportunities it will offer to members of the company.

As we read through them, Hytner nods approvingly at the list. He would, though, have a few additions of his own.

“To reflect both elements of its title, as fully as possible,” he says. “National I would say is not best understood as being ubiquitous. There is a national theatre network of great quality that is all the reps. It is a good idea for us to get out as much as we can and next year we will, I think, tour to more people than we ever have in the theatre’s history – with War Horse, One Man, Two Guvnors and then probably later on Curious Incident, all out on the road. But, obviously, National Theatre Live is a help getting us to places where you wouldn’t be able to tour, even if you wanted to.

“But ‘national’ is better understood as reflecting the nation – its past, its present, what it has been, what it wants to be, what it shouldn’t be. A whole spectrum of theatre should be produced every year that worries away at the ‘National’ bit.

“Andtheatre, that also evolves over time. One of the things that isn’t there [in the original aims] is ‘the exploration of new forms’, the acknowledgement that there are many different ways of making theatre’. Now, that wouldn’t have occurred to Granville Barker, because then there weren’t [many different forms], there was one. Nor would it necessarily have occurred to Olivier or Ken Tynan.

“And we have to also, as all theatres do, use theatre as an educational tool. If we don’t, there will be future generations who find it harder to engage with what we do because they won’t know enough about us.”

The idea of what it means to be a ‘national theatre’ is obviously something that has exercised Hytner greatly during his decade-long tenure. It is also something that has exercised his critics, with his regime often depicted as left-wing and anti-established Christianity. In fact, he points out, he has taken a defiantly equal opportunities approach to causing offence.

“It’s so interesting to me that the criticism that we are representing only one type of theatre or only one body of opinion comes from so many different places. To take one tiny example: there is a body of opinion absolutely obsessed with the idea that this theatre attacks, specifically, the established church and Christianity and would not dare, for example, to take on radical Islam.

“Well, explicitly we have; three times on three separate shows and in one case with great satiric gusto – on England People Very Nice – but also both of Lloyd Newson’s recent shows have been greatly exercised with the tyranny of radical Islam. Both of those shows were found extremely offensive by those who felt it was somehow Islamophobic – which it wasn’t – to discuss the more tyrannical fringes of what, in its mainstream form, is plainly just as benevolent as mainstream Christianity.

How interesting, though, that those who cannot see us except through the prisms of their own prejudices, whose interests are served by identifying us as some kind of reflexively hostile fifth column, they just ignore the stuff that doesn’t suit them. Now that’s a national theatre. Once you’re being attacked by both sides, you’re doing okay.”

He pauses and then adds, referencing the recent controversy over the Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband.

“There are all sorts of ways of being a national theatre and, one might say there are lots of different ways of loving your country.”

You get the impression that Hytner enjoys the controversy, enjoys the fact that the National can use its heft to stir up national debate. But more than that, you get the impression that the thing he has enjoyed most about his time on the South Bank is the company’s sense of community.

I ask him what his favourite part of the building is, aside from the three auditoria.

“Everybody wants to work here most,” he starts. “And that is because everything is done here better and by better people and more enthusiastically than it is done anywhere else. None of that is to do with me. That’s been here from the start. I think everybody loves the communal warmth of the place.

National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile
National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile

“The dressing room block is not architecturally pleasant – the rooms are built around a central well. They’re like a small, tight quadrangle, they all look out onto one another and are on four floors. It’s quite dark, because it’s quite a narrow well. Bluntly, they’re ugly little boxes – we’re doing them all over by the way [as part of the NT Future project] so they will be a lot lot nicer – and they look like they might be from some neo-realist Italian film about a Neapolitan slum, but actors love them because it’s like a massive Rear Window every night – they all look in on each other. It doesn’t have that kind of rickety old charm of those endless stairs that you go up in the back of those West End theatres and they don’t smell of drains the way so many West End dressing rooms do. But everybody who works here – they love that experience. It’s a genuine communal enterprise.”

His favourite memory of the National, though, comes from before he worked there – during his time living on The Cut above the fried chicken shop, when he came to watch everything at the theatre, often standing at the back. He was standing at the back when Paul Scofield playing Salieri in Amadeus.

This is just incredible

He begins to tell me about it, but then changes his mind and leaps up from his chair: “I’m going to show you this because it’s just incredible” – and starts digging around his office for a DVD. We then watch a recording of Scofield deliver Salieri’s speech about the first time he heard Mozart’s music. It is, as Hytner says, incredible.

It also illustrates another point that he makes, slightly mischievously, as my time with him draws to a close.

There has been much talk about how difficult a job it will be to follow Hytner when he leaves the National in 2015, after a hugely successful decade at the NT. But, he insists, the job is “easy”.

He expands: “Whoever is looking after this place for the next 10 years, they will – whether they are conscious of it or not, as I sometimes haven’t been – they will agree with the 1909 prospectus, they will find different ways of fulfilling it, they will have to go on wondering about both elements of the title. I hope they will come up with some very different answers [to me] because as I said, I don’t know if I can go on being radical here. I hope I can be radical somewhere else, but you can’t after 12 years go on being as radical as you’d like to be because you know too much about how it’s possible to do it.

“But, in 50 years from now, the best actors will still work here, the best directors will work here, the best writers will work here – from that point of view, the job will always be easy.”

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