The director writes about his years heading the great British institution—and tells BHT about opening his new London theatre
Though he lights up when discussing plays and performances, Nicholas Hytner somehow exudes a measured calm at Cafe Nero in Southbank. It's unexpected, since he's premiering a new show at his brand-new theatre in just a few weeks. “This is an escape from all I have to do,” he says, but his ease feels like a defining characteristic. You can imagine him directing the original productions of The History Boys, His Dark Materials, Miss Saigon and One Man, Two Guvnors with both enthusiasm and equanimity—all while reassuring those high-strung authors: “Don't worry. Just write it and I'll make it work.” According to playwright Alan Bennett, one of Hytner's longtime collaborators, that's his regular line.
Hytner laughs it off. “Well, the truth is that is often followed by, ‘This doesn';t work, so have another go at writing it!’ That is quite often the case.”
The former artistic director of the National Theatre switches easily from the business to the art of his craft and back again. We chat about American and British audiences: “They leap to their feet quicker in New York; they're starting to here. I wish they wouldn't.” His initiatives, like the National Theatre Live broadcasts and lower ticket prices, greatly popularized the NT: “That work should never stop. It has to keep pace with the way the world changes.” A moment later, he's casually dropping comments about the Bard's history plays: “You go back to the past for what it tells you about the present. All of those plays are as much about his own England, Elizabethan England, as they are about the England they refer to.”
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A coffee break with the man is like a rapid master class in theatre, both the practical and artistic. The same can be said about his memoir, Balancing Acts, which blends his insights with tales from his acclaimed 12-year run as the head of the National Theatre. Though light on gossip, a giant cast of notable Brit actors and writers appear throughout its pages, including a few scene-stealers. Playwright Harold Pinter, for example, goes off on him in a crowded restaurant.
“Look, everyone got cursed out by Harold eventually. He was famously, hilariously thin-skinned—but he was Pinter!” Hytner shrugs. In the book, that story is immediately followed by another—one about Pinter's extraordinary sensitivity to a nervous actor who was messing up his play. “When things got serious, he was amazing, wise and really generous, so there you go.”
At my request, Hytner is describing those theatre parties where the likes of Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all mingle when our time starts to run out. (“They get on famously! They reminisce, exchange war stories and tell each other how good they are. Maggie and Judi go back so many decades they're virtually a double act.”) He must return to his actors; a new play by Richard Bean, another of his favorites, and Clive Coleman is opening in less than a month. “It's about a young Karl Marx when he first arrived in London. It's absolutely fascinating to discover who he was then—roaring around town, indebted, drunk, hopeless, chaotic. Very funny and combative!”
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Young Marx is the premier show for Hytner's new theatre, The Bridge, which he's launching with the National Theatre's former executive director Nick Starr. “It's the first new commercial theatre of any kind in London since the 1930s, and the first outside the West End since, gosh, ever. Nobody can even remember.” The season's second play, also directed by Hytner, will be Julius Caesar, “which we’ll be doing totally in the round. The space is adaptable.” He's almost as animated speaking about the building and location as the shows.
“It's fantastic—right at Tower Bridge, overlooking the river with great views of the Tower of London across the water.” He describes as we walk over to the rehearsal studio and hands back my audio recorder, which he graciously offered to hold close at the noisy café; he's always aware of the audience and their needs. “There are nine hundred-plus seats in the new theatre, and they';re all comfortable; they've got leg room. And more than thirty ladies' toilets. These things matter.
“We're thinking, if we put on good shows, they'll come,” Hytner says, “and if not, we'll close.” If theatre goers are smart, they'll be willing to venture outside the historic West End; some of the most exciting, most interesting and most rewarding productions will now have a new home.
“It's not enough just to be show business—if they're going to the trouble of watching a play, they want something more, something other than mere diversion.” We suspect the show at The Bridge—probably very many of them—will go on for a long time.