A Brave New National; Will Nicholas Hytner's Controversial New Season Bring in Younger Audiences?

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Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH

NICHOLAS Hytner cut a quite sensational dash today with the announcement of his first season as National Theatre director. He has done the right thing by going out to woo a new, younger audience, rather than cherish the older established one.

His programme, which begins in April, is full of what he calls "new stuff, premieres and really exciting shows".

You can hear the voice of the impresario at once. The National directors who preceded him - Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn - all recognised the crucial need to put on new work. But none of them put such initial emphasis on the shock of the new.

Hytner has also worked out a remarkable marketing ploy to seduce not only the young ones but also the underpaid - he refers to teachers, junior doctors and nurses, specifically. The six-month season of four plays in the huge Olivier auditorium, with two-thirds of the seats reduced to just pound sterling10 and a third at pound sterling25, will continue every year provided the box-office numbers rise dramatically during this first season. "The idea is to help establish the theatregoing habit and to get in regulars more often," he says.

So his first programme of plays - or shows, as he would sooner have us call them - is given a vivid, contemporary gloss. There are just two plays - Henry V and Cyrano de Bergerac - which were premiered before the 20th century. But the exploration of the international repertoire of older classics, which has rightly been regarded as a traditional National Theatre duty, will continue in later seasons. It is crucial that he maintains and observes this commitment to work which no other company regularly attempts.

Hytner says he has chosen plays that address "the concerns, needs and desires of the current moment". And he insists he has not ignored classic 20th century drama.

He lists Katie Mitchell's revival of The Three Sisters, which he calls "the greatest play ever written", Howard Davies's production of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, an extraordinary epic modernisation of the Oresteia, not seen in London for 40 years, and Odon Von Horvath's chilling Tales from the Vienna Woods.

With my enduring memories of The Suicide, by the Russian satirist, Nikolai Erdman, I am particularly looking forward to his only other major play, The Mandate, regarded as a lost masterpiece.

When it comes to new work there's a cunningly balanced programme. The premieres by the mature, or elderly - Michael Frayn, David Hare, Nick Dear and Mike Leigh - will be set in contrast to those by the young.

A new, fearful territory is invaded in Elmina's Kitchen, which is set in the murdermile of Hackney by the actor/writer Kwame Kwei-Armah, currently in the television series Casualty.

OWEN McCafferty, who scored a hit with Closing Time, returns with Scenes from the Big Picture, described by Hytner as "an Altmanesque 24 hours in Belfast". …