Two Guvnors, One Hit: How Nicholas Hytner and Richard Bean Put British Bounce in Italian Classic

By Harry Haun
17 Apr 2012

Nicholas Hytner
Nicholas Hytner
Photo by Ivan Kyncl

The 18th-century Italian low comedy The Servant of Two Masters has been dipped in batter, fried and drenched with malt vinegar to form the London hit One Man, Two Guvnors, now on Broadway. Here's how director Nicholas Hytner and playwright Richard Bean did it.

*

Not everyone has the clout, or the inclination, to turn their school play into an Olivier Award-nominated, Tony Award-courting comedy smash — that's just one of those little perks that go with being artistic director of London's National Theatre.

Two years ago, Nicholas Hytner and his associates at the National found themselves staring down a "very serious, rather grim," unrelieved season of shows. "I realized that we needed something in the repertoire that would be purely entertaining," he recalled, "and it's usually me that they push into those shows."



That self-inflicted assignment set him to thinking of the fun and success he had at 17 playing the title role in a Manchester Grammar School production of The Servant of Two Masters, the 1743 Carlo Goldoni farce drawing from the conventions of Italian commedia dell'arte template. He decided to let the part out a bit and recruit one of The History Boys — "the fat, funny one": James Corden — to give it a rompish ride.

Hytner explained, "James agreed to do it, kinda sight unseen. I then asked Richard Bean, whom I had worked with a couple of times, to do it over. I suggested that we re-set it in Brighton in the '60s and refer to all the great English low-comic traditions, which I thought were interchangeable with the great Italian traditions. It's really the same play, adapted very freely. Richard's dialogue is phenomenal, but what you're getting is The Servant of Two Masters, with two scenes transposed just because we put the intermission in a different place. All the shtick, the business, the slapstick, the musical interludes of commedia — they are there in their British manifestations — music hall, variety, farce, whatever."

James Corden
photo by Joan Marcus

Anglicized, The Servant of Two Masters comes out One Man, Two Guvnors, and, with the corpulent Corden as that One Man serving two bosses simultaneously but secretly, there's the added spectacle of him grabbing bites of food at every turn and opportunity while dispatching his double duties.

That, too, goes with the territory, Hytner explained: "The harlequin in all the commedias is always hungry, always after the girl, always stupid but funny."

The original ran frantic rings around Venice, but Hytner opted for an English alternative. "Brighton is a slightly seedy tourist town with lots of hotels — exactly where you'd go if you were on the run from the law in London," he pointed out.

"In Goldoni, they're on the run from the law in Turin and they hole up in Venice. Brighton and Venice feel very similar. Each has a kind of semi-comic undertow of sex and criminality. Also, there is the immediate reference to end-of-the-pier comedy, which is very similar to commedia dell'arte."

End-of-the-pier comedy? "There's an old tradition in theatre that happens in little theatres at the end of the pier," said Hytner. "There are still lots and lots of them, and the classic form of end-of-the-pier theatres is farce, which is in a direct line from French farce, Italian farce, Roman farce — it's all the same thing."

 Continued...