Nicholas Hytner is a powerful force in theatre; he is the Artist Director at the National Theatre on London’s Southbank. You may not know the name or the face but you have experienced his genius in some way. War Horse? History Boys? One Man, Two Guvnors? All arose from Hytner’s time captaining the good ship NT; some plays the result of happy accidents, some years of hard works. But before we jump into his brilliant exploration into planning a National Theatre season, he will not be discussing the following items:
• No, he does not know who will be taking his seat at the National Theatre. We do now, but he didn’t then, which is a shame because I was hoping for an exclusive.
• He’s not going to talk about the struggles between public and private funding. Theatre is worth it. End of the story. We’ve all decided where we stand.
• He’s not going to talk about running an organisation that employs over 800 people, that’s boring and not really his job, thankfully.
• He not going to talk about (or brag) about his Learning and Development programme which is amazing, and NT Live which is also amazing.
Note that Hytner hasn’t written a book, he called his time at the Cheltenham Festival a mismatch. Some of his predecessors kept diaries and had them published, he hasn’t. The only thing he knows now with absolute certainty is how to run the National Theatre, so let’s talk about that for the next 45 minutes. This is the book he could write. In my opinion; this is the book he should write. I’d read it. I’m sure many will because he’s had produced some of the most iconic theatre of the past ten years; from the epic of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy to the Labour and Conservative Whips in 1974.
Together, we image a vast gap in the National’s programme. We must divide our thoughts between the three theatres and following the aims set by Harley Granville Barker and friends:
1. To keep the plays of Shakespeare in its 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 the modern 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 which it will offer to the members of the company.
As simple as it sounds, Hytner views Shakespeare as if it had just landed on his desk or pinged into his inbox. What is this play saying and offering right now? For example, ‘Timon of Athens’ is about a man that measures himself by his wealth, the play seems to be rediscovered every time there is a financial crisis. A Shakespeare play that speaks now, as it did 400 years ago. Shakespeare’s plays are too often shaped by the way they have been previously produced.
He spoke briefly about ‘Othello’ which shouldn’t be seen as a play about racism; everyone has good ‘reason’ to hate Othello outside of his race. The tragedy lies in the tension between Othello and the world he’s worked so hard to be a part of, not the colour of his skin. So that, in a nutshell, is Shakespeare at the National. It might be clichéd to say they look with a fresh pair of eyes, but it is ignorant to ways it has been done before. How would you produce this play if it was done yesterday by a nobody?
Now we think about revivals. The main theatre, the Olivier, was designed around the first and defining outdoor theatres in Greece. Therefore, when think about reviving a classic, what’s better suited to that stage then the plays of Sophocles and the like are brought up. Let’s not forget, that the revival aspect of the National Theatres objectives is to stop great plays from any time period falling into the oblivion. Placing these plays on the great Olivier is both a test and a privilege. It’s the same for new plays.
The ‘state of the nation’ plays are an important part of the NT’s programme and commitment to being the nation’s theatre, to find dynamic new works that provide a social commentary. Some are written for that stage, some succeed, and some don’t. Classic names and Shakespeare can easily fill that theatre but thanks to the support of Travelex, the NT can take risks in putting that new stuff on the biggest stage.
Family shows are also a crucial corner of the National Theatre. I am, of course, talking about ‘War Horse’. The idea didn’t come to Hytner fully formed, but through a strange series of events. His associate Tom Morris’s mum had heard Michael Morpurgo speaking on Desert Island Discs, bought some of his books, liked ‘War Horse’, gave it to her son Tom who in turn gave it to Hytner. The impossibly in staging the thing was a massive incentive, and the rest they say is history.
The same with ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’, yet another happy accident, there was a gap in the schedule that was screaming for a comedy. Hytner wanted to lure James Corden, an original History Boy, back to the stage before he became a television quiz panel personality. There wasn’t time to write something brand new so something was adapted, Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 ‘Servant of Two Masters’ to be exact. This was a dilemma that plagued Hytner in Spring 2011 and has been running in the West End ever since.
As for “produce new plays and to further the development of the modern drama”, that’s what the Cottesloe is for. The beauty of a small intimate theatre and the release of pressure to not selling a lot of tickets, it’s perfect for up and coming writers. The Cottesloe, soon to named Dorfman, have had their fair share of runaway successes such as ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ and ‘London Road’.
Hytner has shown us the simplest and logic behind picking plays for performance but I don’t think I could do what he does. It is an enormous pressure to deliver crowd pleasing season that hits the above targets and making the cash it needs to keep taking risks. For every success, there is a something that doesn’t get it quite right. This year is the National’s 50th Birthday and it sounds spectacular, and if I had £500 I’d buy a ticket. But never fear, it will be shown on the BBC.
As part of their 50th Birthday celebration, they are encouraging everyone and anyone to grab a friend and see theatre. Any type of theatre, grab a warm body that would never normally go and be surprised. I encourage you all to do the same thing.