Magazine article American Theatre

The Showman and the Raconteur: New Memoirs by British Directors Nicholas Hytner and Dominic Dromgoole Run the Gamut, and the Globe

Magazine article American Theatre

The Showman and the Raconteur: New Memoirs by British Directors Nicholas Hytner and Dominic Dromgoole Run the Gamut, and the Globe

Article excerpt


by Nicholas Hytner, Alfred A, Knopf, New York City, 2017, 320 pp., $28.95 cloth or ebook, $17 paper (available December 2018).


by Dominic Dromgoole. Grove Atlantic, New York City, 2017. 400 pp., $27 cloth or ebook.

THEIR THEATRES, TWO OF LONDON'S MOST prestigious, stand less than a mile apart. Nicholas Hytner and Dominic Dromgoole ran the National and the Globe, respectively, in the first decades of this century. Both filled cavernous houses by broadening their audiences. Both were risk-takers and champions of new work. And both expanded the international reach of their institutions.

Yet their pedigrees, directing styles, and agendas--as laid out in their new books, Balancing Acts and Hamlet Globe to Globe--could hardly be more dissimilar. Hytner was a wunderkind with major commercial cred {Miss Saigon) who was invited to the National Theatre as an associate by Richard Eyre. Dromgoole, known chiefly as artistic director of the Bush Theatre and Oxford Stage Company, talked his way into the Globe despite a reputation mostly for new work and a West End production of Troilus and Cressida that by his own admission was a "car crash." Their Hamlets were on opposite ends of the spectrum of directorial license, and their memoirs reveal strikingly different professional personas.

Though written with refreshing humility, Balancing Acts makes a good case for Hytner's reign as the most significant in the National's history. In his first year he attracted an audience that had never imagined sitting in the Olivier with the profane and raucous Jerry Springer: The Opera, via a [pounds sterling]10 rush ticket courtesy of Travelex. With a populist bent and a flair for showmanship, Hytner produced The History Boys, War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and One Man, Two Guvnors, all West End and Broadway hits. It was under Hytner that the NT began to produce its own shows commercially instead of relying on others, and launched the wildly successful NT Live broadcasts.

Hytner left the NT in 2015 with 70 new plays on commission--quite a bequest to his successor Rufus Norris. In his final two seasons, 16 of 30 new plays were written by women. Whether it was his penchant for populist spectacles, the demands of two of the NT's large houses, or a decline in British playwriting, most of his successful new-plays were large-scale entertainments. While it's hard to pinpoint more than a few new plays from his tenure that are sure to have lasting literary value, he was the National's first artistic director to produce as many new works as classics.

On the pressures of helming a juggernaut, Hytner writes, "You start with a vision and deliver a compromise... We want to make art, and we know we're in show business." It's a balancing act he articulates with grace and modesty. There is no mistaking, however, that as producer and director he was a consummate showman on the level of (or even a cut above) his predecessor, Trevor Nunn. More often than not, as with a definitive 1994 revival of Carousel, there was intellect and originality behind the pizzazz.

Balancing Acts opens with a few logy chapters on programming at the NT before and after his tenure. But once Hytner fastens on his fertile partnership with Alan Bennett (The History Boys and The Madness of King George III), the book gains its footing. Lunch with a hostile Harold Pinter and one with a loquacious John Gielgud provide color.

Not every artistic director hires superior guest directors, but Hytner did. And he recognized that much of his success was owed to the likes of Howard Davies, Marianne Elliott, Simon McBurney, Sam Mendes, and others. He treats them all generously, even Katie Mitchell, whose work he admired but eventually found lacking in audibility and focus. …

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