I get confused by Shakespeare, says National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner

"For the first ten minutes I sit there thinking ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about’ and I’m the director of the National Theatre"

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Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, has admitted that even he struggles to understand William Shakespeare. 

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Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Hytner revealed, “For the first ten minutes I sit there thinking ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about’ and I’m the director of the National Theatre. But I think, 15 minutes in, most people have tuned in.

“The best way for anybody being introduced to Shakespeare is to see it well acted. If the actors are alive in it, it gets through.”

Hytner, who is to step down from his role in March 2015 after 12 years, also confirmed that “Shakespeare remains big box office” in his theatres – the Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe.

“This is good news for those of us who remain convinced that the cultural discourse in this country is not as degenerate as the self-appointed guardians of our cultural heritage would have it,” he said. “There’s a widespread and phenomenal hunger for Shakespeare’s plays – even for that handful of plays which are, by his standards, below par.”

The 57-year-old director and producer went onto regale his audience with tales from some of his most famous productions, including Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and 2011’s One Man Two Guvnors, both of which starred James Corden. 

The directer said Corden had “threatened to disappear into that terrifying circle of hell that is the TV quiz show,” and had to “scrub” from his One Man Two Guvnors performance “every trace of that knowing cynicism which is the hallmark of contemporary TV comedy. He needed to rediscover the absolute innocence of the harlequin.”

Recalling his experience of working with Bennett, Hytner described a playwright who “doesn’t like to take a commission” and every four or five years will “cycle round to my house and push a big brown envelope through my letterbox.”

“About ten years ago that’s how The History Boys arrived,” he continued. “It was immensely long and barely decipherable. He types very badly on an ancient manual typewriter, he cuts scenes out with scissors and sticks them back together with Sellotape.” 

Another of Bennett’s plays, The Habit of Art, will be celebrated at the National Theatre’s 50th birthday next month when a string of famous stars of film and stage will join together for a gala performance on 2 November. Actors confirmed to appear include Benedict Cumberbatch, Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Rory Kinnear, Helen Mirren and Simon Russell Beale. 


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