A National treasure — Hytner looks back on his greatest hits

By John Nathan, May 23, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter
Nicholas Hytner at the National (Photo: Charlotte MacMillan)

Nicholas Hytner at the National (Photo: Charlotte MacMillan)

It was Nicholas Hytner’s third big opening in as many weeks. And how better to follow celebrated productions of Verdi’s Don Carlo starring Jonas Kaufmann at the Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Othello with Adrian Lester at the National Theatre than an evening in conversation at the London Jewish Cultural Centre.

The plan was for the National’s artistic director to talk to me about his work for 45 minutes — maybe an hour including a Q&A session. In the event, the running time was almost two hours.

Now any show that ends up being twice as long as originally planned is a worry for those involved. It can be downright terrifying for an audience. There are shorter plays in the West End. And two blokes sitting on a platform talking about the performing arts is not many people’s idea of a good night out. Unless, that is, one of those blokes is Nicholas Hytner. Or, more formally, Sir Nicholas Hytner, though he tends to eschew the “Sir”.

In answer to my first question, he did admit to once name-dropping the title. “I tried it on with British Airways hoping for an upgrade. It worked, and I was so embarrassed I never tried it again. I did consider turning the honour down. But I realised that I wouldn’t have the moral strength to refuse it without letting everyone know about it. And then I realised I was actually rather thrilled.”

Jack Monaghan (Albert) in War Horse, one of Nicholas Hytner’s triumphs (Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg)

Jack Monaghan (Albert) in War Horse, one of Nicholas Hytner’s triumphs (Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg)

Why did he contemplate rejecting the honour? “All my life I’ve used other people’s ‘Sir’ ironically, like everyone else I know in the theatre. And I suppose I was dubious about giving all my friends the opportunity to ‘Sir Nicholas’ me.”

From that candid moment, the audience of 160 people packed into a room for the Ivy House Music and Dance event were as enthralled by Hytner — who arrived in his modest blue Volkswagen Polo — as they had been by his productions.

Expectations were further raised by the fact that since the director had accepted the invitation to speak at the LJCC (he said yes within 15 minutes of receiving the email request), he had announced he would be moving on from the National in 2015.

There were some revealing replies over the course of our conversation. For example, how as a major contributor to the country’s cultural life, he feels part of a cultural heritage created by European Jewry — “although four generations ago my forebears were in the shtetl, not in Vienna or Berlin”. And his vocal opposition to anti-Israel boycotts.

He fears it will become more difficult for British and Israeli theatres to collaborate in the future, such as the National’s venture with Israel’s Habima Theatre in 2007. On this last point he emphasised he was speaking personally, rather than with his NT hat.

In what seems the unanimous opinion of critics and theatregoers, Hytner’s 10 years at the National have been a golden age. It’s hard to think of anyone who has enriched the cultural life of this country more. No one has argued more forcefully or eloquently to maintain the lifeblood of subsidy funding for the arts, or has worked harder to increase access.

Before the LJCC event, I looked up the first interview I did with Hytner soon after he took over from Trevor Nunn at the National in 2003. He spoke then of fostering a collegiate, open plan atmosphere by knocking down some of the building’s internal walls. Whether sledgehammers were actually brought in doesn’t really matter.

Because what’s happened since is that barriers have been broken down in all sorts of vital ways.

Whereas NT audiences were once predominately white, middle class, middle-aged and often, it has to be said, significantly Jewish, they now encompass all ethnicities, income brackets and age groups. What used to be a concrete-built, ivory tower of the dramatic arts is now open and welcoming. It boils down to a sense of civic responsibility and, one suspects, a hatred on Hytner’s part of performing arts existing for their own sake rather than for a public who have paid for the work through their tickets and their taxes.

It’s been a decade that has also been informed by a generosity of spirit with an instinct to turn high art into low-hanging fruit within the reach of all. And a cornerstone of that is the Travelex discounted ticket scheme, possibly the UK’s most far-reaching arts sponsorship programme. Yet none of this would have been possible if the art created by Hytner himself, and under his artistic direction, had not been so consistently daring, entertaining and — a word that perhaps isn’t used as much as it should be in theatre — beautiful. There have, of course, been occasional duds, but some huge hits — The History Boys, War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors among them.

Hytner’s brilliant career has embraced opera, film and theatre — from Handel’s Xerxes to Miss Saigon. When you look at his work and add the steely resolve which has seen him become one of the sharpest thorns in the government’s side on arts subsidy, it is hard to think of anyone over the past decade who has enriched the cultural life of this country more.

He was characteristically open in our interview, evading only one question. He had expressed the hope that whoever succeeded him at the National would view his regime as “just a little bit boring”. Was that what he thought of the National’s output under Trevor Nunn? After a tantalising pause, he opted for the most diplomatic, no comment, response.

Shakespeare devotees in the audience were treated to the thinking behind, for my money, some of the most memorable productions of the Bard over the past 10 years, including Royal Shakespeare Company productions which have rarely shown the clarity of language and vision that define Hytner’s.

Take two revelatory moments from his 2010 “police state” Hamlet. The way David Calder’s Polonius advised his son Laertes “to thine own self be true” suggested that the courtier was complicit in the murder of Hamlet’s father. “Or at the very least, he knew about it,” Hytner said.

The production also implied that Ophelia was murdered. Hytner took the LJCC audience through the logic of his decision-making. “It would have been a police state. The king had just been murdered.

And now you have a mad woman going around Elsinore speaking the truth,” he explained, mimicking a shrill Ophelia. And then back in his own soft voice, Hytner continued: “Of course she was murdered.”
In whatever period Shakespeare set his plays, “he knew that he was writing about a world that his audience would recognise as theirs”. This was why his Henry V — Hytner’s first production as NT director — and Othello, his latest, were modern dress.

Comparing the two Shakespeare works most noted for their racism, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, he pointed out: “Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play that contains within it a criticism of antisemitism. Everybody who isn’t Jewish in the play is antisemitic. They ascribe everything bad about Shylock to his Jewishness.
“You can’t imagine Shylock being appointed commander of the armed forces. Putting Iago aside for a moment, not many people in Othello are vocally racist.”

Manchester-born Hytner — son of a barrister father and a theatre fundraiser mother — also disclosed that he was unimpressed by his own opera productions, even Don Carlo, the success of which he attributes to the quality of the singing more than any directorial decision.

Only his 1985 production of Handel’s Xerses, which remains a cornerstone of the English National Opera, passes muster for him.

Actually, according to a conversation I had with the NT’s head of music, Matthew Scott, Hytner is more than the occasional flautist he admitted to. “He’s a fine musician indeed.” But, no, he was not up for playing a piece for the Ivy House crowd.

“Matthew is exaggerating,” he insisted later. “I’ll spare you and the audience. It wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for any of us.”

Last updated: 2:45pm, May 23 2013