Books

Laughter, Tears, Curtain: Nicholas Hytner Recalls His Time Running the National Theatre

Hytner’s account of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Balancing Act, offers scattered insights but lacks purpose and precision.


Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price: £20
Author: Nicholas Hytner
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-05
Amazon

Nicholas Hytner’s 12-year tenure as Artistic Director of the National Theatre is widely regarded as among the most successful and dynamic directorships of one of Britain’s flagship cultural institutions. Hytner took over the role from Trevor Nunn in 2003, and immediately shook things up at the Southbank venue via a game-changing £10 ticket scheme and some unexpected programming. The inclusion of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera in his first season, for example, allegedly prompted one National Theatre regular to call the box office and enquire: “I want to see this new opera, but who is Jerry Springer?”

Buoyed by that successful and slightly subversive first season, Hytner went on to preside over an exceptionally fertile and creative period in the National Theatre’s history, one that combined new plays and adaptations (such as The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) with sharp revivals (Rattigan’s After the Dance), crowd-pleasing entertainments (the Cumber-Miller Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, and War Horse) and a smattering of exquisite, innovative musicals, both imported (Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change) and brand new (Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess).

Such successes mean that Hytner’s account of his time at the National Theatre (published just a few months before he launches his new venture, The Bridge Theatre) has been eagerly awaited, not only by those who (like this reviewer) saw a great deal of the productions staged under his tenure, but also by those interested in the UK theatre scene more broadly. Sadly, though, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre proves disappointing: the book is erroneously advertised, unillustrated, and indifferently written, though not without a few scattered insights to keep the reader on board.

Unlike former directors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, whose accounts of their time at the National Theatre were presented in journal form, Hytner “kept no diary” (p.15) during his tenure. This means that Balancing Acts lacks the sense of immediate, day-to-day ups-and-downs that are conveyed so vividly in Hall and Eyre’s books, and instead adopts a necessarily more retrospective approach.

The book begins quite strongly: after an introduction that sketches out a “typical” day running the National Theatre, Hytner describes his route to this much-coveted position. He contextualises the early 21st century London theatre scene with brisk precision, noting the vogue at that time for intimate, studio venues (such as the Donmar Warehouse, where he himself directed a galvanising production of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in 2000) and the need for the National “to be the big public alternative” (p.40) to those smaller spaces.

As it progresses, though, Balancing Acts starts to feel more and more like a book with an identity crisis, and one that fails to fully make good on its subtitle. By far the most satisfying sections are those in which Hytner indeed takes the reader “behind the scenes” of the theatre: his reflections on the development of particular productions (such as his “euphoric” experience on The History Boys, his Iraq War-referencing Henry V, and his hugely ambitious staging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) are all interesting, as are his accounts of important innovations like the £10 ticket scheme, and NT Live, which broadcasts productions to cinemas worldwide.

In totality, however, the book feels partial and fragmented, with strange focus and odd digressions. Hytner laments that he does not have “space to mention many … excellent new plays” (p.293) and emphasises that “the book does not record everything that happened at the National Theatre between 2003 and 2015” (p. 287).

Naturally enough, but, if space is such a consideration, then why waste time on lengthy accounts of his film work and pre-National Theatre musical productions, neither of which are directly relevant to this project? Ultimately, the book seems uncertain about what it’s trying to accomplish: it’s a strange hybrid of a text, more a general career retrospective than a comprehensive portrait of the National Theatre’s workings.

Hytner offers some engaging general commentaries on, for example, “the negotiations with contemporary sensibility that old plays normally require” (p.180) and “the challenge of bridging the gap between Shakespeare’s world and our own” (p.31). But the white heat of collaboration, the personalities of the directors and actors and designers involved, are not conveyed very vividly, and the book certainly lacks the characterful, textured quality of another artistic director’s recent swansong publication: Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet: Globe to Globe.

There’s also a disproportionate emphasis on hits: while Hytner is frank in identifying a few disappointing productions, he never once goes in to bat for an underrated show, preferring to focus on what he terms “hot tickets”. (Pretty much all that he has to say about Deborah Warner’s great Fiona Shaw-starring production of Mother Courage and her Children, for example, is that Shaw is “always a hot ticket.”) While the financial complications of running the National Theatre receive some illuminating reflections, Hytner gradually comes to seem as preoccupied with box office as any Hollywood mogul.

In terms of style, Hytner’s writing veers uneasily between confession (“in the safety of the rehearsal room I … confront all the stuff that threatens to be too painful in the world outside” [p.126]) and evasiveness (he claims to have no memory at all of the interview that secured him the National Theatre job). And I’m not sure what’s going on in the closing “Casts and Creatives” chapter, which consists of a seemingly random selection of brief remarks about stage moments and performances, some already mentioned in the book, and many not even connected to Hytner’s work at the National Theatre.

In a predictably glowing review, Richard Eyre praises Hytner’s book for conveying “the anatomy and psychology of a large organisation”. In fact, that’s precisely what Balancing Acts fails to achieve. The book is worth reading for its scattered observations, such as Hytner’s sage remarks about directors’ personal investment in a play, e.g., “[D]irectors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience out. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to its audience” (p.26).

As the book’s title indicates, that notion of “balance” is central to Hytner’s conception of theatre, which he describes early on as a series of negotiations between art and commerce, vision and compromise. It’s a shame, then, that, when it comes to combining the specifics of particular productions with general reflections on theatre as an art-form, this highly anticipated publication fails to get the balance right.

5

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image