Two Guvnors, One Hit: How Nicholas Hytner and Richard Bean Put British Bounce in Italian Classic
By Harry Haun
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."
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."
Bean always knew he was writing for Corden, but he didn't really know him well, and he didn't think that mattered. "The truth is you're writing for archetypes in this play," Bean contended. "I knew I had a fat guy who was hungry, and that's all you're writing about, really. Because this is commedia dell'arte essentially, you're writing for stereotype stock characters. The characters are so much clearer for the audience. They look at the guy on stage, he says two words, and you know what he is. From that point, it's easier to express their motivations in funny lines."
He made the leap from 1743 to 2012 on the laugh meter with the greatest of ease. "I don't think the human condition changes, does it? We all want food and sex."
Nor has he made special concessions for the Yanks. "The basic premise of this play is that it's 1963, Brighton, British, saucy humor — and that's never going to change. Yeah, we might have changed 'firefighter' to 'fireman,' but you'd be stupid not to."
In point of fact, he's pleased with how in step we are with the English. "I was thrilled to see Americans laughing at gags that didn't get that much in England. The big gags go over much the same as the English, but it's great to find Americans are more responsive — well, not in the big woofers but in the middling, supporting material."
Bean said he's not the kind of playwright who reads reviews. "I'm the kind of playwright who reads good reviews" — so he had a field day with One Man, Two Guvnors: "The first time around The Telegram gave it four stars; the second time around, they gave it five stars, so the press can claim it got five stars from every London newspaper, but that's not what's interesting. What's more interesting is that The Sun, a working man's paper that hardly ever covers theatre, gave it five stars like The Guardian. For a play to appeal to both is something!"
Other Bean-Hytner collaborations at the National include England People Very Nice ("It's about immigration so the title is deliberately pigeon-English") and the recent revival of London Assurance with Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw. ("We wouldn't call that 'a version' — we'd call that 'textual revisions'").
"Nick is an extremely good dramaturg. It's really nice to work for him because he's very clear in conception. He knows exactly what he wants to see at the end of the day, which I very rarely do, and he's able to communicate that. I don't mind writing for him. It's a bit like writing an essay for your English teacher. You try to do it well."
In addition to Hytner as director, the play has Cal McCrystal as "physical comedy director." "Cal," said Hytner, "is an amazing, imaginative, skilled director of physical comedy, who's worked with all the great physical comedy companies. He's a great expert at clowning. He's worked with Cirque du Soleil and a brilliant company in England called Spymonkey. The extended physical routines were devised by Cal.
"It was less 'co-directed' than it was 'he did that and I did this.' I think it was pretty clear what each of us was doing, and, in the end, I knew where we were going. I knew we were doing The Servant of Two Masters, but we were reinventing it in terms of popular English comedy, so the perimeters were pretty clear."
One Man, Two Guvnors fits right in with Hytner's directorial agenda, which is no agenda at all and ranges from Miss Saigon and Carousel to Twelth Night and The History Boys. He will follow this current frenetic farce with Timon of Athens, Shakespeare's least performed play, starring Simon Russell Beale. How's that for a snappy change of pace!
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