Primrose Hill director Nicholas Hytner: ‘When I cut bits of Shakespeare, I realised how little anyone cared’

Nicholas Hytner backstage at Cecil Sharp House 26.02.15.

Nicholas Hytner backstage at Cecil Sharp House 26.02.15. - Credit: Archant

The Primrose Hill director who now runs The Bridge Theatre in Borough speaks at Jewish Book Week on March 11 at King’s Place abot book Balancing Acts

Balancing Acts is Nicholas Hytner’s look back, without anger, at 12 years running the National Theatre.

It’s an apt description for the tricky feat of creating critically and commercially successful shows while stroking actorly egos and negotiating the political minefield of being a publicly-funded institution.

Luckily, most agree that the Primrose Hill director pulled it off through a mixture of hard work, diplomacy, stubbornness and high-minded vision.

During his tenure, he oversaw an £80 million redevelopment, staged hits like War Horse, The History Boys and One Man Two Guv’nors and opened the theatre to new audiences via a £10 sponsored ticket scheme.

Ahead of Sunday’s Jewish Book Week talk and four months into his new project at the 900-seat Bridge Theatre he seems relieved to be no longer a public figurehead.

“The new theatre shares little with the National, it exists in a different commercial world. The National promises so many things to so many people. There are so many responsibilities and the balancing act is to meet those expectations and competing agendas. With the new theatre we are just doing what we want, with a self-imposed ambition to do a programme we are proud of and to sell as many tickets as possible.”

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Hytner used the time wating for the theatre’s completion to write his book.

“I didn’t keep a diary but I had a lot that I had thought about, stories I wanted to tell. I wanted to think about what I had learned as I was moving onto the next project.”

Currently staging a hit production of Julius Caesar starring Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey, with new plays by Alan Bennett and Martin McDonagh pending, the Bridge, it seems, is flying.

Bennett famously cycles round and pops his new scripts through his neighbour’s letterbox, sometimes without warning.

“Alan delivers a play in a very different state to say Martin McDonagh,” he says. “With Martin the process is complete and it has to be put on stage as well as possible. Alan, like a lot of playwrights, welcomes a conversation at an earlier stage.”

Hytner’s passion for staging Shakespeare with actors like Rory Kinnear and Simon Russell Beale is because “they share a way of thinking, a desire for clarity and a supple, light-fingered way of speaking the language.”

As with the current Julius Caesar Hytner often cuts or re-writes the Bard. “I am not remotely dogmatic about the way the plays should be done. When I cut bits, I realised how little anyone cared. It’s impossible to destroy these plays. Whatever damage anyone wreaks on them they are still there for another day.”

Of his years at The National he is most proud that the three auditoria were much fuller.

“That was mainly the cheap tickets. You can have all sorts of access and education schemes but there’s nothing as good as all those cheap tickets to get a broad and excited audience.”

The book describes how an outraged Harold Pinter once swore at him in a restaurant for not staging one of his plays, was that the toughest aspect of the job?

“You need a degree of diplomacy,” he agrees. “Sometimes you bite your lip. You also need to create the proper working environment to give people with creative ambition the opportunities to spread their wings. But the flip side is having to deal as delicately as possible with people you have to say no to.”

For Hytner, the hardest thing was to sit in the stalls watching something “I should have said no to but didn’t.”

“Not hitting the bullseye, and sometimes being very wide of the mark, is painful every time. Not just for the audience but for everyone involved. You feel you are inflicting pain and disappointment on people.” Next up is Bennett’s Allelujah, about a choir in a struggling northern hospital.

“It’s set in an NHS hospital and has things to say about growing old and those who have to care for the old, but it’s not a polemical or socially realistic play.”

McDonagh’s A Very Very Dark Matter stars Jim Broadbent as Hans Christian Anderson and plays with ideas about storytelling.

“Martin is bracingly clear about what works in theatre and what works on film. What’s extraordinary about him is (Oscar winning film) Three Billboards was the work of someone who is completely at home in film yet when he works in theatre he has an immediately feel for what makes a play.”

His biggest achievement, he says modestly, is not messing up: “I do feel the job is in trust so in a way you are just proud to get to the end and not to have broken it.”

And perhaps leaving on good terms? Balancing Act doesn’t dish much dirt.

“I don’t enjoy reading malevolent gossip. I can’t stand books which settle scores – I don’t have that many to settle and the occasionally veiled digs are so veiled only I know about them.”

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