Magazine article The Spectator

Power Player

Magazine article The Spectator

Power Player

Article excerpt

Nicholas Hytner has run the National Theatre for a decade.

Lloyd Evans reviews his reign 'T he house that Ho Chi Minh built.'

That's how Nicholas Hytner refers to his ample north London home.

In 1989, at the age of 34, he was hired by Cameron Mackintosh to direct the musical Miss Saigon. 'It just felt like a huge lark, ' he said at the time. The show ran for ten years in the West End and on Broadway and the royalties enabled him 'to do what I wanted to do thereafter. It was a massive stroke of good fortune.' Artistic freedom has been the hallmark of his ten-year stewardship of the National Theatre. Hytner grew up in a prosperous south Manchester family and his fascination with music and drama asserted itself in early boyhood. Aged nine, he had a season ticket to the local concert hall. And he kept a model theatre in his bedroom where he moved a toy figure of Laurence Olivier around the stage. As an adult he would run the theatre Olivier founded.

In 2003 he took over from Trevor Nunn, whose reign had produced a lot of hits and a lot of problems too. Staff morale was low.

There were whispers about Nunn's autocratic style. Worst of all, no one was turning up to watch shows. Poor attendances had plagued the NT for years. In 1994, The Seagull, starring Judi Dench, played to just 63 per cent capacity. When Hytner himself directed The Winter's Tale in 2001, he failed even to match that modest target. Unfilled seats drain a theatre of energy. Actors hate going on stage and performing in an echo chamber. Audiences are quick to detect low spirits in the dressing-room and the word spreads.

Despair is self-reinforcing. It then becomes impossible even to give free tickets away to drama students and friends of the company.

In commercial terms, a vacant venue is the black spot. No impresario would dream of taking a show into the West End when it's playing to a thousand truants every night.

A bold new approach was needed. No one guessed how bold Hytner would be.

He took the presiding spirit of the theatre, as embodied in its ponderous title, and chucked it in the Thames. Instead of running a museum of official art he created a showcase for his personal inclinations. The National Theatre of Hytner. An astonishing risk. And no one noticed how hazardous it was simply because he pulled it off with such aplomb. It works because Hytner's palette is exceptionally broad and because he's confident enough to trust his instincts absolutely. And he accepts failure as an organic by-product of risk. 'There will be duds, ' he said. 'So what?'

Few noticed a casual remark he made at the start of his tenure. 'Often very small itinerant nibble organisations achieve extraordinary things.' The nibble organisation he had in mind was Battersea Arts Centre, a tiny south London venue, whose Godbashing musical, Jerry Springer: the Opera, was brought by Hytner to the stage of the National. Christian fundamentalists were outraged. Predictably enough, their clamour for the show to be closed down gave the box-office a massive boost. Jerry became a must-see hit. After transferring to the West End it ran for nearly two years.

Hytner also commissioned the soap actor Kwame Kwei-Armah to write Elmina's Kitchen, an examination of gang culture in east London's 'Murder Mile'. It, too, crossed the river and became the first drama by a black playwright to reach the West End. …

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