‘The house that Ho Chi Minh built.’ That’s how Nicholas Hytner refers to his ample north London home. In 1989, at the age of 34, he was hired by Cameron Mackintosh to direct the musical Miss Saigon. ‘It just felt like a huge lark,’ he said at the time. The show ran for ten years in the West End and on Broadway and the royalties enabled him ‘to do what I wanted to do thereafter. It was a massive stroke of good fortune.’ Artistic freedom has been the hallmark of his ten-year stewardship of the National Theatre. Hytner grew up in a prosperous south Manchester family and his fascination with music and drama asserted itself in early boyhood. Aged nine, he had a season ticket to the local concert hall. And he kept a model theatre in his bedroom where he moved a toy figure of Laurence Olivier around the stage. As an adult he would run the theatre Olivier founded.
In 2003 he took over from Trevor Nunn, whose reign had produced a lot of hits and a lot of problems too. Staff morale was low. There were whispers about Nunn’s autocratic style. Worst of all, no one was turning up to watch shows. Poor attendances had plagued the NT for years. In 1994, The Seagull, starring Judi Dench, played to just 63 per cent capacity. When Hytner himself directed The Winter’s Tale in 2001, he failed even to match that modest target. Unfilled seats drain a theatre of energy. Actors hate going on stage and performing in an echo chamber. Audiences are quick to detect low spirits in the dressing-room and the word spreads. Despair is self-reinforcing. It then becomes impossible even to give free tickets away to drama students and friends of the company. In commercial terms, a vacant venue is the black spot. No impresario would dream of taking a show into the West End when it’s playing to a thousand truants every night.
A bold new approach was needed. No one guessed how bold Hytner would be. He took the presiding spirit of the theatre, as embodied in its ponderous title, and chucked it in the Thames. Instead of running a museum of official art he created a showcase for his personal inclinations. The National Theatre of Hytner. An astonishing risk. And no one noticed how hazardous it was simply because he pulled it off with such aplomb. It works because Hytner’s palette is exceptionally broad and because he’s confident enough to trust his instincts absolutely. And he accepts failure as an organic by-product of risk. ‘There will be duds,’ he said. ‘So what?’
Few noticed a casual remark he made at the start of his tenure. ‘Often very small itinerant nibble organisations achieve extraordinary things.’ The nibble organisation he had in mind was Battersea Arts Centre, a tiny south London venue, whose God-bashing musical, Jerry Springer: the Opera, was brought by Hytner to the stage of the National. Christian fundamentalists were outraged. Predictably enough, their clamour for the show to be closed down gave the box-office a massive boost. Jerry became a must-see hit. After transferring to the West End it ran for nearly two years.
Hytner also commissioned the soap actor Kwame Kwei-Armah to write Elmina’s Kitchen, an examination of gang culture in east London’s ‘Murder Mile’. It, too, crossed the river and became the first drama by a black playwright to reach the West End. But Hytner didn’t always pander to the multicultural orthodoxy. Richard Bean’s flawed but entertaining analysis of racism, England People Very Nice, was accused of promoting the very scourge it attempted to denounce. Play-goers boasted that they left at the interval. Bean followed it with One Man, Two Guvnors, a bit of toothless knockabout that struck a chord with the public and migrated from the NT to the West End and then leapfrogged to Broadway. This route was first established by Hytner’s greatest inspiration, War Horse, which eventually became a DreamWorks movie.
Crucial to Hytner’s reign has been his canny partnership with Travelex. The deal, struck in 2003, made tickets for the Olivier available at just ten quid. Hytner himself calls the partnership his ‘most significant innovation’, and it created the circumstances that made possible his amazing sequence of popular hits. More than a million cheap seats have been sold to date and the arrangement is due to continue until 2015. The discount culture has spread to the English National Opera and to West End managers such as Michael Grandage, whose new company offers cut-price tickets at every performance.
Hytner’s endless quest for larger audiences led him to poach spectators from the movies. In 2009 he decided to relay NT productions to cinemas around the country. His motive was personal, as always. ‘I grew up in Manchester in the Sixties. If I had been able to see Olivier’s National Theatre in my local cinema I would have gone all the time.’ To pilot the experiment, he selected Phèdre, by Racine, starring Helen Mirren. Given the static, austere and utterly cheerless nature of the play this was an extraordinary choice (but at least it wasn’t in French). The results were encouraging. Fifty thousand viewers saw the play on more than 70 screens around the country. The experiment was repeated later in the same year with All’s Well That Ends Well. This time cinemas across the globe joined in. At present there are 700 movie theatres worldwide primed to receive live screenings of NT plays.
Though knighted, Hytner remains an outsider who seems to enjoy aiming blows at the great and good. More than any of his predecessors, he has politicised his post. When the coalition began cutting arts budgets, Hytner retaliated with a classic piece of Tiny Tim rhetoric. ‘You wouldn’t spend nothing on your child’s birthday because it was an untenable luxury.’ He attacked Michael Gove as ‘short-sighted’ for excluding the arts from his planned English baccalaureate. And he amuses himself by taking pot shots at the BBC. He has publicly lobbied for the broadcaster to beam live shows from the NT into the nation’s sitting-rooms. The Beeb’s excuse — outside broadcasts like this are prohibitively expensive — masks a simpler truth. TV executives hate ‘pointing a camera at a stage’ as if drama were snooker. The solution is obvious. Hytner should stream NT performances live on the internet via the theatre’s website. It would fit perfectly with his mission to shape our theatrical tastes by inviting us to adopt his own.
It’s tempting to conclude that if Hytner’s reign had been anything less than triumphant, he’d have been condemned as a raving megalomaniac. He may in fact be exactly that. But a good one.