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Michael Coveney: Hytner plays it cool and hypes hip new spaces

Our chief critic reflects on yesterday's Press announcement by Nicholas Hytner

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© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Nicholas Hytner played it decidedly cool at his Press announcement yesterday — until, as he says, he "went off on one" about the "phenomenal situation" of the London theatre selling twenty-two million tickets a year, his admiration for the new generation of producers and spaces popping up all over the capital, and what he perceives as the growing appetite for theatre all over the country.

He reckons it's about time we all moved on in the way we talk about audiences. They're all just audiences. He says you get an elderly audience for an Alan Bennett matinee, but some of those guys are mixing it up with the hipsters in The Shed, as well. "There isn't one audience at the National Theatre. There are many audiences."

And he almost asphyxiated himself with enthusiasm for Michaela Coel's Chewing Gum Dreams in The Shed, and the venue that spawned it, the Yard Theatre in Hackney, which has a "fantastic atmosphere and bar" and has spawned, within six months of opening, a chic new pizza joint right across the road. Great: new play with an anchovy topping to go, please.

He praised Jez Bond's cosy Park Theatre, too, as he announced a transfer to The Shed in May for David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face, again directed by Alex Sims. That precedes Polly Stenham's new piece — her NT debut -- Hotel, directed in The Shed by Maria Aberg. This marks a surprising break for Stenham from the Royal Court, which should surely be holding on to her as the star graduate of the Young Writers Programme, and from her reputation-building director, Jeremy Herrin.

Of course, Hytner said, the regional theatre needs special attention. But just look at what's happening in Sheffield, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool with the new Everyman, he proclaimed, adopting a totally different line from the doom and despair in his attacks on government cuts alongside Danny Boyle and the rest of his colleagues a year or so ago.

"The whole theatre business will continue to boom," he said, "unless measures are deliberately taken to undermine it, which they won't be, because of what's happening in London." He implied that politicians took a far more positive attitude towards the arts these days, despite the cuts, at last realising the theatre was a golden egg, even though, under their election mandate, they are giving it less financial support. He wholeheartedly welcomed the announcement of tax breaks in the budget on Wednesday.

The twelfth Travelex season will offer 100,000 tickets at £15 each, with the rest of those houses selling for £25 or £35 per ticket. And that season includes Helen McCrory — the only Judi Dench of her generation -- as Medea, Rona Munro's Scottish monarchy trilogy of plays (co-presented with the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival), the new DV8 show and David Hare's new play, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, "a remarkable rendering of a beautiful book," he said, about the slums at the end of the airport runway in Mumbai.

That play will be directed in the Olivier in November by Rufus Norris, who stood quietly at the back of the Olivier's cathedral window foyer with the NT Press team, while Hytner himself will sign off with a new Richard Bean play in the Lyttelton this summer and a long overdue new Tom Stoppard, a chamber play, in the new Dorfman (the refurbished Cottesloe) in January.

He reckoned that he'd already said his big farewell with the 50th anniversary gala last October — he sure did -- and that the Bean and Stoppard plays would be just a couple of "little echoes" of that.

He also paid a touchingly heartfelt tribute to Ralph Fiennes who, he said, has been a constant support during his tenure, even though he's only appeared in two plays, The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton and Sophocles' Oedipus. His return as John Tanner in Simon Godwin's revival of Shaw's mighty Man and Superman will be a Lyttelton highlight next February.

So will the return of Cillian Murphy this September, alongside Mikel Murfi and Stephen Rea, great actors both, in Enda Walsh's Ballyturk. Hytner rightly highlighted Murphy's astonishing performance in Walsh's Misterman three years ago, a tour de force of total genius that was insufficiently regarded in the reviews, and the awards, I felt.

He side-stepped an awkward question — not posed by me, for a change -- about the Arts Council justifying their dwindling support for the regions by sending the NT out on tour as a substitute. For beyond the few theatres Hytner mentioned, you really don't get much of an impression of startling new work or pulsating new energy in the sticks, though there are signs of stirring again in Northampton under James Dacre, and at the re-branded Nuffield under Sam Hodges. The NT still sucks in most of the good stuff.

Nobody, these days, though, says the NT sucks full stop. It's all become jolly, flush, safe, corporate-friendly and totally uncontroversial. Come back Charles Marowitz, all is forgiven! Hytner reiterated the fact that he has not been keeping a diary (unlike his predecessors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre; Trevor Nunn has said that he will eventually write a book based on memories of working with particular colleagues), but that "One day I'd love to write a book...but I will have to make it all up."