Two days after the public announcement of his appointment as Director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner spoke to Theatrenow regarding his plans and ideas.
Hytner's term of office doesn't start until April 2003, but given the long-term nature of theatre programming (and, like ships, theatres need time to change direction) he will be spending most of the next eighteen months planning his first season. True, he has a Broadway show — The Sweet Smell of Success — to launch early next year, but as of now the National's vast South Bank headquarters will be his home.
His undoubted popularity within the organization (the members of whom, from senior administration staff to stagehands, burst into applause when his appointment was confirmed on Tuesday) will be an enormous help to him, as will Trevor Nunn's evident goodwill towards his successor.
Despite the ritual exhange of (genuine) compliments between the two, Hytner naturally has a different set of priorities and when I asked him about the possibility of reviving a British musical rather than yet another American one he said "I'm open to ideas. After all, there's much more to musical theatre than Broadway between 1945 and 1960."
Music is clearly an enthusiasm of his, and his track record as an opera director — an inevitably international career — has given him an interest in European theatre that he is keen to apply to the National: "I would love to involve some of the best European directors, and contemporary European writers. Europeans tend to be shamingly fluent in English, so their working over here would not present language problems. What is rather more difficult is the writing — one challenge to be faced is how to translate the best of contemporary non-English plays in a way that will bring them to life for British audiences."
Audiences clearly have a huge range of theatre on offer in the West End, and as Theatrenow has commented on before, (All Change at the Almeida) the Almeida and the Donmar have offered the sort of range of plays — from classic to contemporary, British and American, drama and musicals — that would once have been the preserve of the National.
Hytner reacts strongly to the idea that they are in any sense rivals to the National, and in doing so his essential 'take' on his theatre is made clear:
"The Almeida and the Donmar are, in essence, court theatres: the Almeida was London's Versailles for the 1990s. That isn't a criticism; after all the court theatre at Versailles produced Moliere, but they are relatively exclusive in the sense that Glyndebourne is, they cater for smaller more specialised audiences.
"The National has a unique position: our size, location here on the South Bank, and above all our stages; our ability to present large-scale productions. What I want is to find playwrights and shows — and I obviously have some in mind, though it's too early to mention names as such — who can fill those stages.
"In recent years directors have tended to prefer smaller spaces, to concentrate on studio theatres, but when I was starting out one of the attractions of directing was to have a large canvas to work on. One of the things I like about Mother Clap's Molly House, and which I want other productions to share, is a sense of fun, of zest, of theatrical energy."
Where is he going to find the people who will bring this energy to life in the Olivier and Lyttleton? Does he keep an eye on the Fringe, where many young actors, writers and directors develop their skills? "Yes, and I want to get more involved in that search, but not just on the Fringe. I think that the National should liase closely with regional theatres, and that we should help each other with the development of the writers and directors that theatre needs to carry on into the future. As I said at the press conference on Tuesday, playwriting is absolutely at the heart of the National."
Given his association with playwright Alan Bennett (Hytner has directed his adaptation of The Wind in The Willows at the National and The Lady In The Van in the West End), does he hope to entice him down to the South Bank from his North London home? "I'd love to work with him again, and especially here at the National. Believe me, I'm trying!"
The other Bennett play Hytner is associated with is the hugely-successful The Madness of George III, which after a sell-out run at the Lyttleton in the mid 1990s was filmed as "The Madness of King George" and made Hytner a movie director to be reckoned with, as well as a leading figure in theatre and opera.
How will his film career fit in with running the National? Will he combine the two? "I want to concentrate on the National, where I'll direct two plays a year. That and running the company will take all my time, and I certainly don't see myself making films during my first five years."
What about television? Any chance of the National following Broadway's lead and tying in with television broadcasts or advertising? "In theory its a good idea, but there are strong practical problems, and people — and the unions — are quite rightly concerned about having their performances exploited indefinitely. What might well work here is a one-off live broadcast, towards the end of a run. We did that with my production of Twelfth Night at the Lincoln Center in New York and everyone was very happy with it, so that may be a way to go. I'm interested in anything that can help promote live theatre."
Whatever way he chooses to go about promoting it, it's obvious that theatre has an intelligent, experience, committed champion to take the National on through the early years of the twenty-first century. The Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh has called Nicholas Hytner 'a butterfly with nerves of steel.' A canny phrase, it misses one essential point. Butterflies have a very short life span. When Hytner refers to "my first five years"; however, he's making it clear that he intends to be around, having fun, for a long time yet.
by Paul Webb Theatrenow