Though his appointment was announced way back in September 2001 (See News, 25 Sep 2001), Nicholas Hytner didn't assume the artistic directorship of the National Theatre full time until the beginning of April 2003, succeeding Trevor Nunn.
Despite - or more probably, because of - the lengthy handover, Hytner has already made a definitive mark on the UK's flagship theatrical institution (See News, 23 Jan 2003): reorganising management structures, slashing seat prices to just £10 in the NT Olivier, re-evaluating touring practices and announcing an ambitious repertory schedule that's already scored critical and popular hits with the likes of Jerry Springer - The Opera and the Adrian Lester-led Henry V.
Born in Manchester and educated at Cambridge University, where he read English, Hytner launched his directing career with productions at Exeter's Northcott Theatre and Leeds Playhouse before becoming an associate director at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre and working for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
His first production at the National was Joshua Sobol's Ghetto in 1989. The following year, Hytner became an NT associate director, a role he continued until 1997, mounting productions such as The Wind in the Willows, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Recruiting Officer, Carousel and Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III starring Nigel Hawthorne, which he also directed on screen, when it was retitled The Madness of King George and nominated for four Academy Awards and won both the BAFTA and Evening Standard awards for best British film.
Hytner's other London stage credits have included: at the National, The Winter's Tale and Mother Clap's Molly House; and in the West End, Volpone, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Lady in the Van, Cressida, Orpheus Descending, and Boublil and Schonberg musical Miss Saigon, which played for a decade at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and was a huge international hit, also enjoying a long run on Broadway, where Hytner last year premiered the stage adaptation of The Sweet Smell of My Success.
Hytner has mounted numerous opera productions around the globe, including The Turn of the Screw, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza Di Tito, The Cunning Little Vixen and Don Giovanni. On screen, he has also directed The Crucible and The Object of My Affection.
In addition to his film prizes for The Madness of King George, Hytner's many other stage awards including two Oliviers, two Evening Standard Awards, a London Critics' Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award and a Tony. He was Visiting Professor of Theatre at Oxford University in 2000 and remains an associate director at New York's Lincoln Center Theater.
What made you want to be a theatre director
in the first place?
I couldn't act and I couldn't write. Nobody in their right mind would want to be a director if they could write. Why would you want to be? If you can write, you have the real talent. If I could write, I'd be a writer. I've tried to write - plays, the lot - but I find it very difficult and I've never shown anybody anything.
What was the first production you ever saw at the National?
It would have been one of the very first things to open. Tamburlaine or something like that. When I was a kid, because I was in Manchester, I didn't get to London that often, but I did get to Stratford quite a lot. Trevor Nunn's RSC had a huge impact on me. But when I first moved to London - I lived for three years on The Cut, directly opposite the Old Vic, on top of the fried chicken shop (which is still there) - I came to the National and it had an enormous effect on me. The first production I directed here was Ghetto in 1989. It was a wonderful play. I was overwhelmed to have a production here. I've always loved working here and I loved being an associate director. I very much felt myself becoming part of the family of the place.
Why did you want the job of artistic director?
I thought about it when Richard Eyre told me he was moving on, but really didn't want it then, I didn't feel ready. Two and a half years ago, when Trevor said he'd be moving on, I knew that this time I really wanted to do it. I think I'd reached the point in my career where I was less enchanted by my own work than I needed to be to simply go on directing another play, another movie, another play. I really wanted to be involved in the life of a company, to be involved in creating a repertoire for this whole operation - to work with writers who I wouldn't necessarily serve particularly well as a director, to work with other directors, to work with a whole company of actors and with all the people I'd known for a very many years. It felt like absolutely the most challenging and the most fulfilling thing I could possibly do.
You know there are lots of playwrights who I admire inordinately who wouldn't play to my strengths. It's foolish to think that every director would direct every play with equal facility and equal insight. For example, Kwami Kwei-Armah's play (Elmina's Kitchen) is not my kind of play as a director but absolutely my kind of play as a member of the audience, as the director of this building, as a producer. I think that any director who genuinely believes that he or she can direct any play as well as any other director is a bullshitter and is not welcome in this building.
How would you rate your predecessor Trevor Nunn's tenure?
Enormously successful and full of marvellous achievements. I inherited the company in tremendous shape artistically and financially. If you look at the body of work over the last five or six years, it speaks for itself. And the National Theatre has never run up a deficit in the way so many other arts organisations in this country have, never. It's always been brilliantly managed. So I have a company with a balanced budget and no financial crises on the horizon except those that I create myself and that's tremendous. I also benefited from a lengthy transition period. The National has always been extremely well managed in that way, so the new director has time to create a repertoire, to know what's going to be happening well in advance and so forth.
What do you consider your most immediate challenges & rewards?
Well, the challenge is to be consistently forward-looking. We must be that. We can't at any point rest on our laurels. As soon as you think in the theatre that you've found what it is that works, that you've found a formula for success, that's when you have to move on. I have seen theatres shrivel and die because they've gone on doing the same thing. This theatre won't stand still and mustn't stand still. The best way to honour its past and to honour the great work its done in its past is constantly to be pushing forward, to be looking for new ways to be doing things, to be looking for new forms of theatre, new subject matter, fresh looks at the canon. That's the challenge, that's the constant challenge. People really want the National to be good and want it to do well and that's a fantastic feeling. And it's very very rewarding to have three shows completely sold out on a night. We've had several nights like that recently - all three theatres absolutely full - and that's great.
What is your overriding vision for the National? How will you measure success in achieving it at the end of your first five-year contract?
Similar to what I've just said: the vision is this constant desire to break fresh ground. How will I measure success? If I feel good about it, I'll feel good about it.
How do you define a 'national' theatre?
One good way of dealing with that is by asking: "what's national?" and "what's theatre?" And it's very interesting that the answers to those two questions change constantly and that both would have been answered totally differently in 1963. Forty years later, 'national' means something quite different, and obviously our repertoire and the way we produce our repertoire and the whole organisation needs to reflect our new sense of nation, our new sense of national, which is much more pragmatic and creatively much more various. The same with 'theatre'. Although the core of the word will always be a great play superbly acted - or what we hope is a great play superbly acted - there are forms of theatre now which we have to embrace and we have to go with and we will. 'National' does not mean catering in equal measures for Scottish and Welsh audiences as for English audiences. Absolutely not. We can't. Like all great capital city institutions in this country, we are based in this magnificent building in the middle of the capital and our concerns are national, our outlook on the world is national. People mustn't confuse 'National Theatre' with something that might be called 'National Touring Theatre' because we are not that. We want to tour and we will tour - we are having a reorganisation, a whole new look at our touring operation - but we are national as in National Gallery not national as in National Car Parks. It is not the purpose of the National Theatre to be in every town in England. We tour because we want to tour as much as we can to show what we do all over the country, but it's not what makes us national. Should Scotland or Wales have their own national theatres? That is so much not my business.
What are your plans for the theatre beyond the current season?
After the £10 Travelex season in the Olivier, we'll stage the Philip Pullman trilogy (which Nicholas Wright is adapting). It's going to be big, ambitious, extravagant, long - it's going to be two plays - and it will be all-embracing in that it will embrace every department of the company show. One of the ways to use the Olivier - the way we're currently using it - is to think boldly, to require directors and actors to be confident in that empty space, to use it as a metaphor for different worlds. It will be different with His Dark Materials, which will use all of the Olivier's magnificent scenic equipment to its fullest.
And I think that's how we will continue in the Olivier. Half the year we will step back, strip it bare and ask the people who work in the theatre to be imaginatively very bold with their designs. Through that we will be able to afford to have £10 seats - which we will have for three years, at least, thanks to Travelex. What's been happening in the Olivier traditionally is that you can sell out for an old Broadway musical, but virtually everything else we've had trouble shifting over the summer. With £10 seats to Henry V, we've been selling out almost every night now. That's unprecedented; it proves it's working. So we'll continue like that for half the year, and for the other half of the year we will be much more ambitious visually.
Across all three theatres, we're fully announced until April of next year. That's further ahead than the National usually announces. Although we're now working on 2004/5, I'm not in a place where I can talk about any of that. Different projects work to different timelines. It completely varies. There are some things that we're talking about now that might happen in two, three, four years' time. One of the problems with planning too far ahead occurs when something arrives that needs to be done and you can't do it. So there's a balance to be struck.
What would you say to entice first-time visitors to the National?
I think everything we're doing amounts to that. It's very important to say that it's not compulsory to like theatre. Being a theatre lover doesn't make anybody spiritually superior. There are all sorts of other ways to spend your time. The thing that bothers me is that people who would like it if they came can't afford to come and don't know what's here. And that's something that I would like to address. But the notion that it is better somehow to like theatre is a notion I reject.
I think theatre is vitally important for our society, but I also think classical ballet is important, I think cricket's important and all sorts of other strange minority interest activities are very, very important. One of the things I find disturbing is that there's a theatre ghetto inside of which an awful lot of people shout about how important it is that the rest of the world come to the theatre, but in fact they keep the doors tightly shut by very devious financial stratagems. How can you say that opera's for the people if you're charging £125 for tickets? Nor is it any good saying dance is for the people if you can't in the way that you present it find a context in which to show that a girl en pointe in arabesque is the most dazzling sight available to the human eye. You have to make these things available, you have to find the right context for them so that people can come. And if they don't get it, fine, they can go. There are other ways to spend your time and they will all be equivalently enriching.