BWW Interview: Nicholas Hytner Discusses BALANCING ACTS
From 2003 to 2015, Nicholas Hytner was Artistic Director of the National Theatre in London. It was an era that saw transformative innovation, from the £80 million redevelopment of the Cottesloe (now Dorfman) auditorium and the attendance-boosting introduction of £10 tickets, as well as the birth of numerous beloved hit shows, including War Horse, One Man, Two Guvnors, The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Nick has recorded his tenure - with inviting detail, great insight and self-deprecating wit - in new memoir Balancing Acts. And there's already a next professional chapter: his recently opened London venue The Bridge, the first commercial theatre of scale built outside the West End in 80 years.
I met him at his office near Borough Market, in a funky building shared with various start-ups. In both layout and occasionally odd décor choice (see: large, semi-abstract red dog sculpture) it is, we agreed, somewhat reminiscent of the BBC's self-lampooning sitcom W1A, but an appropriately energised space for a new venture.
First of all, many congratulations on the book - it's a fantastic read. Did this process come naturally to you?
I'm certainly not a natural diarist. I don't keep a diary and I don't tend to remember every little thing, so when it came to writing the book, I had to begin by taking lots of people out for meals to try to jog my memory. That's partly the reason for the thematic structure of the book. If we went chronologically, I would have spent an awful lot of time trying to fill in the gaps!
Did anyone recall events differently to you?
Well, I rather remembered [the stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's] His Dark Materials as something of a nightmare production, but actually several people remembered it much more fondly than I did.
Your account of that process is very vivid - the dawning realisation of "This isn't working"
It was quite an extraordinary undertaking. I had no idea going in how popular the books were, and the level of expectation the stage version might have. And it was this big, two-part production with a lot of competing elements. I'd just thought it would be perfect to fill the Olivier and make use of its technology, but it certainly wasn't without incident.
You're very honest about your moments of frustration - like snapping at Russell Tovey to stop being so interesting with his daemon puppet in rehearsal
Yes, Russell had plenty of memories about this one! But it's one of those things you chalk up to experience. It did eventually come together, and by the time we brought it back the following year, that sense of near-disaster had thankfully faded.
Of course there's a new trilogy now. You just need to stage a giant flood for the first one...
The Book of Dust? I've read the first one, it's fantastic. And then the second and third books are going to be set after His Dark Materials.
Pullman said this trilogy is neither prequel nor sequel, but "equel"
Exactly. He's an extraordinary world-builder.
Did you always know you wanted to produce more for family audiences at the National?
You really do want to programme as widely as possible. And of course talking to the next generation of theatregoers is hugely important, so it was a great pleasure to find ways to do that.
You mentioned you sometimes programmed work that didn't speak to you personally - did that feel like a risk?
Not really. There were plays that I wouldn't know how to direct, but I trusted in those who could do them justice. If you only programmed what you yourself could create, that's a very narrow scope and not at all what the National Theatre should mean.
Though you weren't keen on programming that many new European plays?
What it comes down to is: I can't produce something that I myself can't understand. You have to advocate for the work, even if it runs into challenges down the line, so there's no point choosing something that you're not sure about from the start. You do have to feel strongly that it's the right piece for your theatre.
You had a lovely line about Richard Eyre, when he was AD: "He made space for me to become a better director." Did you try to do the same?
Absolutely. That's really what you have to do. I had wonderful associates, like Marianne Elliott and Howard Davies, who did multiple shows under my tenure, and that was really the greatest pleasure: providing the space and the support for others to make great work.
How do you know when to intervene?
It's a matter of judgement with each individual. When you have a meticulous director like Howard Davies, they're not looking for your notes really, so much as confirmation that their instincts are correct and they're on the right track.
And then it sounds like Danny Boyle didn't want much input at all with Frankenstein
As I say in the book, Danny had seen off far worse than me - Hollywood moguls and the like! But he had a very clear vision, from the double casting of Johnny [Lee Miller] and Benedict [Cumberbatch] onwards, and it was a huge hit.
Then with writers, it really does vary. For example, someone like Alan Bennett does like having that editing process and back and forth discussion, whereas Martin McDonagh comes in with a play where each line is beautifully set, and really doesn't need the same intervention.
You wrote that if you direct a play, your job "is to be useful to it" - how does that work in practice?
Well, if we examine that, what does it mean exactly, to be useful to a play? It's not producing something dull, or being overly reverential necessarily - you still have something to contribute as a director.
There are some productions out there that take a more traditional tack, and there's room for those, but I want to reveal the play to the audience in the most interesting way I can.
How do you know when to pick your battles - for example, convincing Alan Bennett that Posner in The History Boys shouldn't be played by a child actor with an unbroken voice?
It really is that - deciding which battles are worth fighting. We all do that, don't we, at work or at home. Really it's a logical choice - you know when it's the right call and you need to make it happen. And Alan will say now that Samuel Barnett as Posner was a good choice in the end.
Could you switch easily between creative sympathy and arguing, say, the financial case?
It's actually never really about money - I didn't tend to play that card with anyone. It really is for the good of the show. When you're on the outside of the process, sometimes you can see what will help more clearly. But we're all on the same page, wanting to produce the best version possible.
You had some interesting notes for War Horse after the first preview - "Too long. Too slow. Not clear. Long, pretentious scenes in German"...
Which there were! Those were just pretty sensible editing notes. Sometimes it's about paying attention to a simple, fundamental storytelling element so you keep the audience engaged. That should always be our first priority.
Was it satisfying to bring puppetry more into the mainstream through War Horse?
I don't know that I did really - it was already a wonderful established art form. What we were able to do was showcase it. If you're running a theatre, you have to keep your ear to the ground and keep scouting for those who could use a bigger platform - or have others you trust to keep you in the loop, like Tom Morris often advised me.
Is it harder to take risks working on that scale?
You can honestly never tell from the outset how something will be received. War Horse of course has had an extraordinary long life. Comedy is perhaps more of a high-wire act, because you're there to make them laugh - if you don't, you're in trouble, and it's hard to gauge that in rehearsal. It wasn't until the first preview of One Man, Two Guvnors that we knew it would take.
Both of those shows, and Curious Incident, they're all great examples of collective enterprise. That's probably the best route to success. But you never know - it's the audience who tells you if this is the story they want to be told.
Are you particularly proud of the £10 tickets initiative?
Well, that's grown exponentially. It's really become enshrined now - so many theatre companies and producers make that a core part of their offering. Occasionally it's a bit of a cheat, like the seats stuck up on the edge of the balcony that should probably come with a £10 attached to them!
But on the whole it's really fantastic how that's been taken up. There's no point having wide-ranging programming if you're not creating the means for a wide audience to see it.
Some other advances really happen without my having much involvement with them at all - like technology. Look at the brilliant work done by companies like 59 Productions, or our video designer Finn Ross for Curious. That's all growing and changing so quickly.
It really wasn't me blazing a trail - it's something that was already happening, and absolutely should have been happening. It's now I hope fairly accepted that you just cast the best actors for the job regardless.
You're not answering to the Arts Council now at The Bridge - so is diversity something you're thinking about on your own?
Well, first of all I don't know that anyone really does think about or work towards imposed quotas - it's not the way you operate. You want to programme the absolute best work, and of course you want variety. If you sit down and look at your plan, and see you have six plays in a row about family dramas, or six plays written by middle-aged white guys who went to Oxbridge, obviously that's boring.
So it's something that happens organically, or something you keep in the back of your mind?
It really does come with programming as wide a variety as possible. If you're constantly looking for interesting and engaging work, then hopefully you look back after several shows and you can see you've told a good mix of stories in lots of different ways.
Theatre is inescapably a more exclusive art form than some, because it happens for a small number of people on that night. That's why we love it as a live experience, but it's also what we have to consider all the time when we think about ways to open it up to more people.
You wrote that increasing the number of female creatives at the National "took too long". Why was that?
It's one of those things where you look back at the end of your tenure and realise it should have happened sooner. In fairness, we did start from a very low base, and there was certainly progress during my time.
In the last two years there were more new plays by female playwrights than by males: by about 17 to 15 I think. In the Olivier, over the 12 years of my tenure, there were about nine new plays by women to 14 by men. So not perfect, but I do wish the numbers had finished at closer to 50/50.
Though you mention Greenland not working out, you still seem committed to theatre that's rooted in our reality or says something about our world
I do think theatre has a duty to engage with the world, as a whole - that's part of our DNA. But it's not journalism. We don't have a responsibility to report objectively about everything, so it's still about telling the best stories. And I also think there's plenty of room for more intimate pieces as well, alongside those big state-of-the-nation works.
What really struck me, reading the book, is that we think of ADs having a grand vision, and actually it's so much about details - like the bins driving you mad, and eventually sparking the renovation of what's now the Dorfman
It really is detail as much as anything. You're reacting to an awful lot day to day, and constantly looking for ways to improve - that can be at ground level as much as big ideas. Through the book, I wanted to give an idea of what it's like not just running a theatre, but thinking about running a theatre.
I had several very helpful chats with Richard before I began, and then the same with Rufus. I've seen fantastic work at the National under Rufus's lead - he's doing brilliantly.
Did you experience the same pressure he is now, with people weighing in on what the National should be doing?
Of course, that absolutely comes with the territory. Everyone knows what the National Theatre should be, and all those views are different. It's something you just have to grapple with as Artistic Director.
It was interesting reading that Cameron Mackintosh asked you about doing Follies, and now it's at the National
Follies is a wonderful piece of work. I wasn't in a position to do it justice at the time, but it's fantastic that it's here now. I'm also looking forward to seeing Beginning - I've heard great things.
It's brilliant, I'm so pleased it's transferring to the West End
Yes, though I had been thinking a lot about why there isn't there more new writing starting in the West End, as there used to be. There are lots of transfers or productions with links to subsidised companies - Ink from the Almeida or Labour of Love from Headlong - and that's fine, but I started to wonder if we could offer an alternative model.
That's one of the ideas behind The Bridge. Not necessarily just "new writing", but certainly new and interesting work that people would want to see, done on the kind of scale you find in the West End - in a 900-seat theatre.
Did you always have a dream theatre space in mind?
After leaving the National, Nick Starr and I knew we wanted to keep making theatre, but a lot of those listed West End venues are very much of their time. Nick had worked with the architect Steve Tompkins before, building the pop-up Almeida Theatre spaces, and of course The Shed at the National, so the three of us had been having those conversations for a while.
Then, very luckily, along came this perfect space. It was basically a concrete shell that would house some kind of cultural offering as part of Berkeley Homes' new residential scheme. Exactly the size we wanted, and right by a park and Tower Bridge.
Are you competing directly with other venues?
Not at all - we're not stepping on anyone's toes. It's an alternative to the West End, but there's plenty of space for everyone. Figures show that 25% more theatre tickets are sold now than 10 years ago, so there's certainly the audience appetite for more shows.
It's also a flexible space in the way that most West End theatres are not, so it's a different offering in that sense. Over our first three plays, you'll see the staging configured as proscenium arch, promenade and then thrust.
Is there less pressure running The Bridge?
There is definitely a relief in being able to say "This is what we're doing - if you don't like it, you don't have to buy tickets". Whereas the National is answerable to others, and has certain responsibilities.
We also don't have to worry about each show turning a profit - we have investors committed long term, rather than on a show-by-show basis. On the other hand, we do want to make work that fills the theatre every time, and it is a commercial enterprise, so we take those considerations seriously.
If this model succeeds, might you extend it to several other theatres?
Finally, did you learn anything from writing the book that you're now applying to The Bridge?
The book really is a separate thing, and there I just wanted to relate my experience as engagingly as possible. Running the National is certainly a pressurised job, but it's the most extraordinary experience, one you feel very grateful for having been granted.
So I don't think it was about applying lessons per say, particularly as The Bridge is a very different model - and it's certainly not a blueprint or a manifesto. But it was enjoyable to look back at that experience before embarking on the next one.
For more information about the Bridge Theatre, visit www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photo credit: Johan Persson, Helen Maybanks, Manuel Harlan, Philip Vile, Brinkhoff/Moegenburg