Nicholas Hytner's memoir reveals the secrets to Benedict Cumberbatch and James Corden's success
The History Boys director tells us where it all began in his new book
Nicholas Hytner didn’t keep a diary of his 12 years in charge of London’s National Theatre. “Too lazy,” he admits. “I did it for about a week at the start.”
This distinguishes his memoir, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre– which he reads this week in Radio 4’s Book of the Week– from those of two of his predecessors, Peter Hall and Richard Eyre. Where theirs are day-to-day accounts of events at the helm of Britain’s flagship theatre, his is “shaped by themes. My memory is so selective and I didn’t remember it chronologically.”
It’s also different in tone. Hall and Eyre some- times sink into something like despair when problems engulf them; by contrast, Hytner says with a smile, “I rarely felt agony. I often felt tense.” This confidence probably springs from the fact that he oversaw one of the most successful periods in the theatre’s history since it was founded in 1963 by Sir Laurence Olivier.
When he arrived in 2003, Hytner discovered only the musicals were selling out and the National’s budget was calculated on the basis of its auditoria being only two-thirds full. By the time he left in 2015, having ridden a wave of New Labour investment in the arts, he could look back on a record of the three theatres, and the outside temporary Shed, running almost at capacity, with new audiences attracted by £10-seat schemes, a remodelled building and a repertory that had encompassed new plays, ground-breaking Shakespeare and popular hits such as The History Boys, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Yet he’s honest about the difficulties.“You start with a vision and you end with a compromise,” he writes in the opening chapter. And when we talk, he admits that “what’s depressing is when you’re presenting something you don’t like and you’re out in the foyer and people are coming in and you really want to say, ‘Go home.’ But that didn’t happen often.”
One undoubted highlight was The History Boys, part of his longstanding collaboration with Alan Bennett, the writer he describes as “the best luck I’ve had”. This was also the play that introduced him to the talents of James Corden. They went on to collaborate on One Man, Two Guvnors, a comedy so successful in London and on Broadway that it led indirectly to Corden’s current position as chat-show king of the US on The Late Late Show.
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Hytner, 61 in May, says: “I know James misses the stage and wants to do more. It will really surprise me if he doesn’t at some point start appearing on stage again relatively regularly. There is no way he is going to be a chat-show host for ever, however much money they throw at him. He has too creative and fertile a mind.”
Corden is just one of the cast of vivid characters in the book: generations of actors (Simon Russell Beale, Rory Kinnear, Zoë Wanamaker) and writers whom Hytner has nurtured. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fleeting appearance, just before Sherlock made him a star, auditioning for Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein by improvising a scene where the monster is born. It was so realistic, Hytner longed to leave the room. “I had to stop myself saying ‘Stop, stop, we can see you can do it’,” he says, laughing. “But the impressive thing was that Benedict said, ‘Please can I audition?’ He knew he was going to be Sherlock when he decided to do a play at the National. That’s pretty smart.”
Maggie Smith is there, too, with a line in withering putdowns that surpasses even Downton Abbey’sDowager Countess of Grantham. Hytner worked with her later on Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, on stage and on film, but he says one of his greatest regrets is not finding a part for her at the National. “I did every now and then ask her. But there comes a point where turning out eight times a week is not something that should be expected of substantial actors at a certain point in their career.”
Balancing Acts is a book with many insights and anecdotes, but if it has an overarching theme, it is that theatre is an art that should engage as wide a public as possible. Not everything will be as popular as War Horse, which was seen by some seven million people around the world from its opening night in 2007 to its closure last year. Hytner – who was knighted in 2010 for “services to drama” – backed the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War novel, but was dismayed at the first preview performance to discover that it was exhausting rather than grip- ping its audience. As a producer, he stepped in.
“I was sufficiently involved to know that a bit of radical surgery would release it. I had to be the bad cop to get the production team to do what they needed to do.” The rest, as they say, is history. War Horse went on to be the defining popular success of Hytner’s time at the helm – and continues with a UK tour in September.
From October, he will take all he has learnt and apply it to the running of the Bridge Theatre in London, beside Tower Bridge. It opens with a new comedy by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman about the young Karl Marx, starring Rory Kinnear and directed by Hytner, who is looking forward to this brand-new venture. “One of the things I became much better at was being brutal about my own shows,” he says. “Even good shows are 20 minutes too long.” Expect brief, brilliant fireworks – and a great second volume of memoirs.