Making Headlines with Hytner, The Wizard of Oz and Macbeth

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Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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No sooner had I posted my column last Wednesday about Nicholas Hytner's 10th anniversary lessons than later the same morning he declared his intention to depart from the theatre in March 2015, alongside his executive director Nick Starr (who will depart ahead of that next year).

So there's plenty of time for succession planning, which Starr has already partly put in place for himself when Kate Horton was brought in from the Royal Court to join him as deputy executive director last year. But it isn't a done deal: according to the National, the succession committee of the NT's Board is setting about about identifying a shortlist of possible candidates for Hytner's replacement for the full board to consider, and are expecting to announce the appointment in the autumn, with the new Executive Director appointed once the director designate is in place.

But as I wrote at the time of Horton's appointment:

This no doubt reflects an ever-expanding template of responsibilities there, from producing the NT’s own transfers to the West End, Broadway and elsewhere (like the currrent War Horse and One Man Two Guvnors to the NT’s own imminent refurb.

And just as Horton helped Dominic Cooke to stretch the Royal Court’s reach far beyond its Sloane Square home to Elephant and Castle, Peckham, the West End and Broadway, so the National is on a major roll-out of its brand both nationally and internationally.

Meanwhile, of course, Dominic Cooke has just passed the reigns of the Royal Court's artistic direction to Vicky Featherstone, who will announce her debut season this Friday. So could it be that Cooke and Horton will soon be reunited at the National?

Cooke is surely a leading contender. I already speculated aloud a few months ago who else might be in the running, in which I pointed out that Michael Grandage had ruled himself out of contention. Since writing that, Rupert Goold has of course been appointed to the Almeida, so he won't be in the running, either.

So who is left? Jonathan Church, who has made such a spectacular success of Chichester in saving it from the brink of disaster to re-establish it as one of our most commercially successful of all theatres, has to be considered. And of course within the National itself, Marianne Elliott is currently responsible for not one but two smash hit transfers to the West End in War Horse (co-directed with Tom Morris, who could also potentially be a candidate in his own right after his current success in revitalising the Bristol Old Vic) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

But a couple of names who were in contention when Hytner got the job could also re-surface as candidates. Sam Mendes, having earned his millions now from Skyfall, could comfortably come back to the theatre that is his first love. When I met him at rehearsals a few weeks ago for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that he is currently preparing for the West End next month, he didn't rule it out when I suggested it (though he didn't rule it in, either!)

And of course Stephen Daldry, fresh from his triumph of overseeing the Olympics ceremonies, may want to return to the theatre full-time, too.  And a dark horse, should he wish to return to the theatrical stage where he began (and who returned to it to direct Frankenstein at the National in 2011), is Danny Boyle, who directed the Olympics opening.

Ding Dong - a show tune is in the charts

Just as (some of) the nation prepares for Thatcher's funeral tomorrow, it's certainly been interesting to see a show tune rocketing up the charts: The Wizard of Oz's 'Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead' hit the top spot on the iTunes charts and made it to number two on the official UK singles chart, announced on Sunday.

Of course the song is innocent in itself – but context is all, and its chart success is clearly a direct (and orchestrated) response to being adopted as an anti-Thatcher anthem.  And lyricist Yip Harburg's son Ernie last week pointed out the political ramifications of the song, while paying tribute to his late dad's inspiration in writing it:

Those who sang the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” in the film “The Wizard of Oz” celebrated the end of tyranny at the hands of the Wicked Witch of the East. That celebration was not in L. Frank Baum’s book. Yip’s artistic leadership put it into the film. (Yip also brought the rainbow, also not in the book, into the film.)

Yip said, “Humor is the antidote to tyranny” and, “Show me a place without humor and I’ll show you a disaster area.” Yip believed tyranny is caused by the policies of austerity, imperialism, theocracy and class supremacy, which deny most people human rights and economic freedom from poverty and want. A song — music and lyrics — allows singers and audiences to “feel the thought” of the lyric. “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” is a universal cry against the cruelty of tyrants and a protest against the ban on laughter at that cruelty. For the 99 percent, laughing and joy are required at the funeral of a tyrant. According to Yip, humor gives us hope in hard times.

Even if the Daily Mail is, of course, feeling predictably outraged by this challenge to Thatcher's memory and legacy, we do live in a democracy still and (some of) the people have put their 79p where their mouth is and bought the track.  As Mark Biddiss, who was one of the organisers of the Facebook campaign to propel the son up the charts, told ITV News last week, for many people buying the record was “a very cathartic experience."

And for those of us who simply love show tunes, it is rather wonderful that one has made it up the charts, whatever the reason.

Macbeth's mobile phone dangers

The perpetual ringing of mobile phones during performances, despite the pre-performance reminders to switch them off, has become one of the tiresome but now accepted nuisances of theatregoing, like people rustling noisy sweet wrappers from confectionary that they've bought at the theatre (and always makes me wonder why they sell it, given the disturbance it routinely creates).

Nowadays it has become equally familiar to see people casually checking their e-mails or (not so) surreptitiously sending texts during performances, too.

And now there's a whole new level of disruption being offered by the chance to take photographs or film on mobile phones. So it is great to hear that James McAvoy last week did a "Richard Griffiths" and stopped the show as he performed Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios when he spied someone filming a recent performance.

Of course, it shouldn't be up to the actors to police this kind of behaviour but the front-of-house staff. And fellow audience members around the offender were surely being distracted, too. Could one of them not have had a word, too? We all have a responsibility here.

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