Nicholas Hytner - Theatre's Tony Blair?
Philip Fisher talks to the Director of the National Theatre.
Nicholas Hytner could be seen as the Tony Blair of British Theatre. He is the chief executive of the National Theatre of Great Britain and as such, like the New Labour politician, might be regarded as having reached the top of a very high tree.
There is one very obvious difference: Tony Blair is now portrayed as a modern-day Julius Caesar with plotters waiting to stab him and an obvious contender auditioning for the Brutus role. By contrast, the theatre director still seems to be living through a very successful honeymoon period and to be almost universally praised.
More than an Artistic Director
In order to do his job, Hytner has to be far more than merely a very talented theatre director. Many people can move actors around a stage to follow their magical vision of a play. In addition to doing this to great acclaim twice a year, the Director of the National is also the chief executive of a major public body which doubles as a commercial organisation employing several hundred people.
He is a kind and generous man, judging by his willingness to grant a thirty minute interview, immediately prior to the opening night of David Farr's The UN Inspector. This was confirmed as he happily allowed it to extend by an extra 50 per cent.
The interview took place on one of the comfortable black leather sofas gracing his light and sizable office, which has a great view over the Thames.
When he put himself up for the role as director of the National Theatre, Hytner recognised that he was approaching "an organisation that works. There was nothing inherently wrong with it. It was not like Michael Boyd taking over at the Royal Shakespeare Company". Boyd had to straighten out an organisation riven by internal divisions as Adrian Noble tried to withdraw from both London and its historic home in Stratford.
Hytner has a very definite philosophy about how a National Theatre should be run. "The worst thing that we can do is to be all things to all people all the time". He continues by explaining why he believes that he got the job. "I'd been knocking around a while. By the time I put myself forward, I felt that I knew what I wanted to do and where Theatre could go. The repertoire directly addresses a very wide audience. The National has to address a network of interlocking concerns and communities".
Hytner probably actually got the job because he recognised that "every few years it does need looking at radically from first principles. It must redefine itself. I offered to look at what it was doing and why it existed".
The £10 Seasons
He relishes the multiple responsibilities of running this organisation and does not shy away from the financial side as so many creative artists will be tempted to do. He explains that "I am like a Chief Executive. I have an expert top team but the buck stops with me". He attributes his success, like so many businessmen, to a special talent for humility that can sometimes be surprisingly hard to find. "I know what I'm not expert in".
One of his most significant contributions to British cultural life has been the introduction of the Travelex £10 Seasons in which two-thirds of all seats for chosen productions, usually in the "difficult" Olivier Theatre, are offered at that price with the remainder selling at £25. Even the latter price is less than half that of many equivalent seats over the river in the West End.
This project was a real example of working with his team. "The idea was bold and simple but it took a lot of working out, considering the risks and finding appropriate sponsors". Interestingly, at the time that it was introduced, it went against conventional wisdom, not to mention one or two high-powered reports which suggested that "we had to charge what the market would bear".
He justified the thinking behind the decision saying that "We had a widely shared intuition that audiences were shrinking because of the prices. This was the wrong story for the public. This is a London problem as ticket prices have doubled here in a short period".
There is no doubt that the gamble paid off. "We knew that we had it right. We take more money and are able to fill theatres in summer where previously they had been half-empty. The knock-on effect on shows outside the scheme has also been tremendous".
Hytner is proud of the project believing that "we got closer to showing why subsidy works and what it can do. It was a way of getting people into our epic amphitheatre (the Olivier) and is proving that productions in that theatre can work well without all of the spectacle".
The statistics are certainly impressive. Seat occupancy last year was running at 94%-95% in the £10 season and overall it was up at around 92%.
Hytner recognises that this can't go on and he predicts that this year will not be as good. The last two years have been extraordinarily popular and profitable with big hits like Jerry Springer The Opera, His Dark Materials and The History Boys supplementing the draw of the low-priced ticket sales.
While the big theatres, the Lyttelton and the Olivier get much of the publicity and the famous names, the best seller is the smaller-scale Cottesloe. This broadly gets 100 per cent occupancy despite its more experimental programming. "We fill it because of our very clear policy and an audience that follows it".