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Mark Shenton: Nicholas Hytner picks up a deserved award for his efforts, but he’s not done yet

Mark Shenton (right) and Nick Hytner with the Critics' Circle award. Photo: Elliott Franks Mark Shenton (right) and Nick Hytner with the Critics' Circle award. Photo: Elliott Franks
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This week the Critics’ Circle Annual Award for Services to the Arts was presented to Nick Hytner at a lunch held at the National Liberal Club off Whitehall. It was chosen by an open vote of the entire membership in every section of the Circle – Hytner himself has worked to distinction in at least three of them.

He was proposed for the award by the drama section, of which I am chairman, following his outstanding 12-year tenure as director of the National Theatre that ended earlier this year. He has also done award-winning work in opera and film, is a keen fan and supporter of dance, is a patron of Dance UK and, during his time at the National, brought work from the likes of Lloyd Newson and Akram Khan on to its stages.

His production of The Magic Flute was in the English National Opera’s repertoire for a quarter of a century and he is on the board of trustees at the Royal Opera House. His film version of Alan Bennett’s stage hit The Madness of George III won both the BAFTA and Evening Standard Awards for best British film and got its star, Nigel Hawthorne, nominated for an Oscar. And he also successfully made a screen version of another Bennett play, The History Boys, with its original stage cast intact.

Due in November is another film based on a Bennett play he first directed on stage, The Lady in the Van, with the title role played, as on the West End stage, by Maggie Smith, and a supporting cast that includes ever one of the original History boys, including James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Sam Barnett, all of whose careers were launched by that play.

It is in the theatre that Hytner has made the biggest impact

It is in the theatre that he has made the biggest impact, both as a powerful spokesman for the theatre and with his own productions, from big commercial musicals like the original Miss Saigon to being Alan Bennett’s most regular stage collaborator (whether in the West End, where The Lady in the Van originated, or at the National where he staged The Wind in the Willows, The Madness of George III, The History Boys, The Habit of Art and People), as well as National Theatre hits like One Man, Two Guvors and modern-dress Shakespeare plays that have included Adrian Lester’s Henry V and Othello, Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet and Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear.

During his tenure at the National, he and his executive director Nick Starr brought in several major innovations, including the ground-breaking NT Live, which has pushed NT productions not only around the UK but around the world with simultaneous live screenings from the theatre, as well as introducing, in his very first year, the Travelex-sponsored reduced price ticket scheme across a large portion of the Olivier and Lyttelton repertoire, to make theatre more affordable to all; it is still in place at the theatre today. They also presided over the NT Future scheme that has transformed the theatre inside and out, and made it feel fresh and newly inviting.

Now the two Nicks — or NHS as someone wittily dubbed them in reference to their initials — are working on changing the way commercial theatre operates, with their recently announced plans to help take its centre of gravity outside of the West End and relocate it to the thriving South Bank where they are opening a brand-new purpose built 900-seater theatre near Tower Bridge in 2017. It is just the start of a plan to open a number of independent theatres of different sizes across the capital.

He may have closed the chapter of his life at the National Theatre, but a new one is just beginning. In saluting his past achievements, I now look forward to those that are yet to come.

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