Theatre in Wales

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Absorbing Autumn Theatre Book(2)

Balancing Acts

Nicholas Hytner , Jonathan Cape , November-07-17
Balancing Acts by Nicholas Hytner The tenure of the National Theatre's fifth director is reckoned to have been a high-point in the institution's history. The most telling point in this absorbing record recounts a moment far from the stage and the lights. Hytner opens his fourth chapter in his own office at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning. Twenty people are squeezed in. They include Mark Dakin, Nick Starr and Lisa Burger from finance. “Balancing Acts” is about the productions but the running sub-text is the team. The notion of the sole leader is a chimera; leaders of distinction create teams of greatness.

The second telling point that changed the institution's history occurs a few chapters on. The subsidised sector has always been intricately interwoven with the commercial. Yvonne Murphy expressed it with an eloquence that can not be bettered in her testimony to the Senedd committee on October 18th. Productions had always vaulted from time to time from South Bank to West End. But the risk had been borne by commercial companies and so too the rewards. In the Hytner-Starr era the theatre kept the lot. That needed the board's backing; great management teams create great boards.

The National Theatre sells tickets, not always, because it puts on plays. “Balancing Acts” is suffused with tales of dramas sought and dramas staged. “We're looking for plays” he writes “that answer what Tennessee Williams called “the crying, almost screaming need of a great worldwide human effort to know ourselves and each other a great deal better.”

Dramas require dramatists and they are regular in the book. An early meeting with Harold Pinter is ripe in curses and “f***ings.” Hytner is reassured that a part of the job is to be damned early on by Pinter. The making of “Great Britain” was a piece of bravura. “Richard Bean's voice is simultaneously humane, mordant, hilarious, offensive, angry and tolerant of any amount of deviation from polite conformity. His plays are torrents of theatrical energy.” The theatre's studio is in the background nurturing the new but dramatists are also craftspeople. Of James Graham and his big hit: “This House” arrived within months. James isn't a writer who hangs about.”

“Balancing Acts” differs from the books of Hall and Eyre on their times at the helm. Hytner kept no diary so the account is reconstructed in hindsight. It is calmer than the others without the press of daily events and occasional mayhem. It is low in assertion but an aesthetic stance is inevitable. “I am less interested in plays that mirror my own way of looking at experience than in playwrights who dumbfound me with their conviction and authenticity.”

Theatrical values are to the fore. “Boring scripts flooded in” he remembers “all of them monomaniacal about making some point or other, none of them remotely theatrical. Plays that make points rarely are.” That did not mean an exclusion of productions of conviction. When it came to verbatim theatre Hytner's time staged two of the best in “the Permanent Way” and “Stuff Happens.” But they were good because the figures on their canvas were rich and wide. It was a method that failed with “the Power of Yes”; the motivation swung too much to projecting virtue and goodness.

Goodness is nice in life but tedious on a stage. The usual suspects who looked to the National Theatre as their house company were outraged by “England People Very Nice.” Hytner's view is that “Nobody could accuse “England People Very Nice” of delicacy. It worked like a scurrilous cartoon, the action peppered with projected comic strips.” National theatre in London in the Hytner view does not belong to the Guardian. “Despite my sympathy for the Guardian's doctrinal pieties, I preferred to run a theatre that felt confident enough of itself to be able to poke them with a sharp stick.” The key phrase and the key value is “confident enough of itself.”

The writing is economically eloquent. Of Howard Davies “his death in 2016 robbed British theatre of a large part of its conscience.” Of Rona Munro's great trilogy that coincided with Scotland's referendum “the James Plays...were funny, violent, informative, sexy and staged with swashbuckling élan by Laurie Sansom.”

A small controversy boiled over in 2017 as to who and what directors are for. Hytner is brief. “If you direct someone else's play, your job is to be useful to it. If you have nothing to say about it, if it means nothing to you, if you think that all you need is to get out of the way, you end up draining the life out of it. But directors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to an audience.”

“Balancing Acts” is an anthem for theatre in the public domain that matters. It also contains an episode of tribute to the art of the actor which must join the classics. “Frankenstein” is on the agenda and the casting swap between the two main parts is intrinsic to it. Danny Boyle knows Jonny Lee Miller from “Trainspotting.” He has no doubts about Benedict Cumberbatch's suitability for playing Frankenstein but wonders about the Creature. As it happens the actor is performing in the building and is invited in.

“Absolutely no problem” are Cumberbatch's words. In Hytner's full description. “He lay on the floor of the rehearsal studio and shut his eyes. A few seconds later he opened them. They grew large in amazement, as he saw the world for the first time. He started slowly to twitch his limbs. Slowly and painfully, he tried to hoist himself to his feet. His legs buckled from under him: his limbs were like jelly. He collapsed painfully, and grunted in shock. He repeated the noise he'd just made, and realized he had a voice. He tried to stand again, grunting, mewling, bouncing at the walls. Locked in a room with him, it was impossible not to share his birth-pangs. I started to sweat, hoping it would end soon, but Benedict had only just started...the Creature's agonies weren't going to stop until somebody pulled the plug. After about twenty-five minutes Danny finally thanked Benedict very much, so Benedict thanked Danny very much, and returned to his dressing room to get ready for Rattigan.”

Actors are beings of wonder.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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