Michael Coveney and Matt Trueman on Hytner's National – 'a golden era'

Our critics assess Nicholas Hytner’s 12-year tenure as he marks his final day as artistic director of the National Theatre

'Not bad for a Plan B' - Nicholas Hytner
'Not bad for a Plan B' – Nicholas Hytner
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage
Michael Coveney: Nicholas Hytner will be a hard act to follow, and there are signs that Rufus Norris has no intention of trying to go down the same route. Hytner launched his tenure by going to the heart of the conflict in Iraq: a contemporary Henry V (Adrian Lester) on foreign soil with instant media feedback; David Hare's Stuff Happens, verbatim-style power games behind the US offensive; and David Farr's re-write of Gogol's The Government Inspector as The UN Inspector, with Michael Sheen in pinstripes.

Almost everything about his programme has been urgent and contemporary, without being modish, not least the Alan Bennett plays about education and the National Trust (The History Boys and People), the re-appropriation of Timon of Athens (Simon Russell Beale) as a fable of sponsorship and Occupy London, and the sensationally innovative London Road (directed by Norris) musical about a community in shock and recovery after the serial crimes of a murderer.

Most astonishingly, perhaps, Richard Bean's fantastic contribution – England People Very Nice was a brave and brilliant defence of Britain's mixed, historical ethnicity; One Man, Two Guvnors a classic mega-hit re-write of Goldoni – climaxed in a Living Newspaper, samizdat response to the phone hacking trials at the Old Bailey; the show was announced on Wednesday, opened Monday.

'The NT 50th Gala may have been his greatest production of all'

Although Jerry Springer never merited its expansion from a 40-minute blast on the Edinburgh Fringe, I've loved three other musical shows for their originality and intelligence: New York imports Caroline, or Change and Here Lies Love, and Tori Amos's The Light Princess (a glorious near miss). Hytner has generously promoted not only Norris (The Amen Corner was another revelatory revival) but also Marianne Elliott whose productions – War Horse (with Tom Morris), a brilliant Jacobean double of All's Well That Ends Well and Women Beware Women – have been highlights.

Hytner's executive director, Nick Starr, helped forge the BAC connection, too, and young blades Ben Power and (recently) Simon Godwin have been key. Shaw's been retrieved (The Doctor's Dilemma turns out to be a prophetic NHS play) Rupert Goold and Howard Davies crucial. The cheap ticket policy with Travelex has been maintained (although I'm sorry they re-named the Cottesloe for its head honcho, Lloyd Dorfman), the re-build a triumph, NT Live a game-changer and The Shed (now the temporary theatre) a shot in the arm they won't easily surrender.

The nature of the beast now militates against any idea of an NT company – one would like to see, say, Helen McCrory (a great Medea) or Lesley Sharp (Harper Regan, A Taste of Honey) more often. And the American commercial adventure has not been an unalloyed success, I gather. But overall, it's been a golden era, suitably celebrated in the NT's 50th anniversary gala which may well have been Hytner's greatest, certainly slickest, production of all.

Adrian Lester in Henry V, Hytner's first production at the National
Adrian Lester in Henry V, Hytner's first production at the National
© Ivan Kyncl

Matt Trueman: Nicholas Hytner was Plan B. Back in 2001, Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry were, by far and away, the frontrunners to succeed Trevor Nunn. Both ruled themselves out, lured by Hollywood, and Hytner stepped up. The selection committee reckoned that he "could deliver a fantastic five to ten years." He's delivered 12. What's more, his legacy extends far, far beyond the National itself.

"The trouble with people," he once said, "is that they die, or they move out of London, or they just stop coming to the theatre, and unless you've brought in other people, your audience gets smaller and smaller." The National has gone the other way: up from 585,000 in 2002, to 2.7 million at the last count, this time last year – and that's not even counting the millions watching NT Live around the world.

Hytner has brought a new audience to the National – and, indeed, to theatre. Two main reasons: his Travelex £10 tickets – still a snip at £15 a decade on – and his embrace of new forms of theatre. Those cheap tickets were revolutionary – and I say that as one of Hytner's first-time bookers. His Iraq War Henry V was my first solo NT trip and, a month later, I was back for Jerry Springer: the Opera. Look around London now: almost every theatre, even some in the West End, has cheap seats: £12 at the Old Vic and the Royal Court, £10 at the Donmar and the Almeida.

'Hytner gave the nation its favourite play'

He's also behind today's mixed ecology. Bringing companies like Improbable, DV8 and Kneehigh to the National, supporting Punchdrunk and Shunt and, later, the Shed, legitimised forms of theatre that tended to be pushed to the fringe. The masterstroke? Appointing Tom Morris – off the back of a Guardian article, no less; a decision that would lead directly to the National's biggest ever hit, its cash cow, War Horse.

On that front, Hytner's executive director Nick Starr deserves much credit, pushing the National into self-producing its transfers, not to mention overseeing NT Future and NT Live – both of which will, I'm sure, have radical effects over the next decade.

There's plenty more. Backing the Monsterists encouraged a generation of playwrights to think big and bold. He's made Shakespeare every bit our contemporary, with surveillance state Hamlets and a recessionista Timons. He's dabbled in controversy (England People Very Nice), placed ethnic minorities at the very heart of British theatre and, from His Dark Materials onwards, reinvigorated the family show completely. A new generation of stage stars emerged on his watch: Rory Kinnear, Jessica Raine, Anna Maxwell Martin, John Heffernan, all those History Boys. Yep, Hytner also gave the nation its favourite play – something every NT AD should aim to do from hereon. Not bad for a Plan B. Now, as Hector himself would say, "Pass it on, boys."

A special platform event, And Finally… Nicholas Hytner, takes place at the NT today at 5.30pm

Gallery – Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre in pictures