Sir Nicholas Hytner, the author of Balancing Acts, shares insights from his 12-year tenure of the National Theatre, the most successful period in its history
Your book is called Balancing Acts and there are many of them in the book but one of them is that between critical and commercial success, isn’t it? How do you approach that on a day-to-day basis doing your job?
Well, we produced about 20 shows in a year and at the South Bank alone we had to sell three quarters of a million tickets a year. The many balances that went into creating that repertoire included finding shows that were both good and popular but it also included finding a wide variety of topics and a wide variety of approaches within a 20-play repertoire. You want as many people as possible to see the best stuff. My two jobs included directing plays, two a year, but also producing the others and always what I was looking for was the best possible play a playwright could write, but trying always to be responsible both to the artist and to the audience. To be responsible both to what would be most true to what the artist wanted to write and what would be most popular. And that’s being an impresario really.
You are actually very frank in the book about how unpolished shows can be right up until the moment when an audience comes in to watch them or indeed when they’re watching previews. Is it not completely terrifying marshalling all of those people towards that goal time after time? As you said, 20 shows a year.
Yeah, it can be terrifying. The thing about a play is you never know until you put it in front of an audience exactly what it is that you’ve got. It’s particularly perilous when you’re doing comedy, which I’ve always enjoyed directing, and which is part of a wide repertoire you want to do. You don’t know until you put it in front of an audience whether they’re going to laugh. If they don’t laugh, you can’t hide behind some notion of artistic integrity. If it’s there to make people laugh and they don’t laugh, it’s terrible. So that experience of sitting in front of a comedy at which people aren’t laughing, is pretty miserable and going backstage and saying, ‘Well they might not have been laughing but I can promise they were smiling all the way through’, absolutely doesn’t wash. When you direct a play you spend some time in a rehearsal room but then you force it onto the stage in two or three days and those two or three days can be totally chaotic.
I’m not sure about a moment of joy but I can remember lots of moments of relief!
You’ve mentioned laughter there; it’s a very, very funny book you’ve written because it’s filled of course with some fantastic anecdotes featuring very famous actors and I just wondered over those twelve years and all that hard work if there was a moment of just pure joy that you remember from your time at the National.
Well I’m not sure about a moment of joy but I can remember lots of moments of relief! One thing I remember that actually started rather miserably was rehearsing a play by Alan Bennett called The Habit of Art in which Michael Gambon was rehearsing the part of the poet, W.H. Auden. About a week in, in the middle of the morning, Michael Gambon suddenly went grey, totally grey, and collapsed and we all thought he had had a heart attack. He was stretchered out, oxygen mask over his nose, whisked off to St. Thomas’ Hospital and the stage manager went with him and she said, ‘Is there anything you would like us to take back to the rest of the cast and to the rehearsal room? And Gambon took off his oxygen mask and said, ‘Don’t worry about those bastards; they’re already on the phone to Simon Russell Beale.’
And Simon Russell Beale’s a very, very distinguished Shakespearean actor and the terrifying truth was we had already checked Simon Russell Beale’s availability. He wasn’t available so by the end of the morning, and this is another reason why the book is called Balancing Acts, we decided all of us, the other actors, Alan Bennett and me that we were going to call Richard Griffiths. You might remember Richard Griffiths, gargantuan actor, incredibly delicate, as delicate as he was enormous, and Richard Griffiths had played the principal role in The History Boys, which was the previous play we’d done together and so Richard had every right to feel rather resentful that we hadn’t gone to him in the first place to play W.H. Auden. But I called him and Alan had already said ‘Doesn’t matter that he’s so fat, I will write lines…’ justifying the fact that W.H. Auden who although he was dissolute was actually quite thin and Richard answered the phone and said to me, ‘It may interest you to hear that I come to you direct from my exercise bike’.
I dismiss the thought that Richard might be thinner than he was when we last saw him because actually it really doesn’t matter. What matters is what works. On the other hand, what works can often be simply meretricious so another balancing act: it’s got to work but it’s got to be true. Anyway Richard said he’d play the part. Richard, alas dead now, was an anecdotalist, he went on forever and ever and ever, his stories never had a destination, they just used to go on all morning. He agreed to start the following Monday, he was late, he called from a car on the A40, said he was stuck in traffic at which point, because we were now really, really pushing it, we only had two or three weeks to go, I heard Alan Bennett’s voice from behind me saying, ‘Start rehearsing as soon as he comes in otherwise he’ll be here all morning with Traffic Jams I Have Known’. So that is actually how plays get put together.
Looking back on that period you were there, obviously huge success, lots of awards won, I wondered if there was any single achievement that you was most proud of?
What you’re proud of obviously if you’re running a big theatre are the careers you’re in at the beginning of; the young playwrights who get started who wouldn’t get started otherwise, or young directors and actors. The History Boys, which I mentioned, had an extraordinary cast; first parts for actors like James Corden and Dominic Cooper and Jamie Parker, who is now playing Harry Potter in the West End. But also I’ve had the great good fortune to have worked with people who are already legends. So, knowing and working with Arthur Miller and actors like Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren and Daniel Day Lewis, all of whom off duty are not necessarily what you’d expect them to be.
I made the movie of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, and I can remember still ‘The Crucible’, for goodness sake, up on his old IBM computer, in the hut in his garden where he has worked since 1952 and he was happily taking it to pieces and rewriting it and I remember thinking ‘Is this like giving Shakespeare notes on King Lear?’ And Daniel, who played John Proctor, the main part in that movie, Daniel is everything the legend says he is. He came to the set six weeks before everybody else to build his own house and plant his own ground, seriously, and I get it. He needed the musculature of a puritan farmer, he needed it in his body, he needed to be totally immersed in it.
** BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week **
You start with a vision, and you deliver a compromise. You want a play to be challenging, ambitious, nuanced and complicated. You also want it to sell tickets. You want to make art, and you know you’re in show business. These are some of the balancing acts that the National Theatre, and this book, is about.
This is the inside story of twelve years at the helm of Britain’s greatest theatre. It is a story of lunatic failures and spectacular successes such as The History Boys, War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors; of opening the doors of the National Theatre to a broader audience than ever before, and changing the public’s perception of what theatre is for. It is about probing Shakespeare from every angle and reinventing the classics. About fostering new talent and directing some of the most celebrated actors of our times. Its cast includes the likes of Alan Bennett, Maggie Smith, Mike Leigh, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren.
Intimate, candid and insightful, Balancing Acts is a passionate exploration of the art and alchemy of making theatre.