Shakespeare in the Theatre: Nicholas Hytner

Abigail Rokison-Woodall
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare

Shakespeare in the Theatre: Nicholas Hytner

One of the first releases in this Arden series on the Shakespeare productions of major theatre directors and companies analyses the theatre work of one of our leading working directors from his time on stage as a pupil of Manchester Grammar School half a century ago to his exit from the helm of the National Theatre in 2015.

Rokison-Woodall's book is an impressively thorough piece of scholarship that examines many of Sir Nicholas Hytner's Shakespeare productions in detail, from his overall concept and interpretation of the text to cuts and changes to individual lines and the implications of these changes. The author's own analysis is supported by quotes from a large number of reviews and articles plus interviews, published and personal, with Hytner and with actors and others with whom he has worked.

Despite this level of detail, the book never gets bogged down in lists of facts and obscure academic concepts; it is a very entertaining and absorbing read for the general theatre enthusiast, although as it is aimed at the academic market it is a little on the pricey side.

Although Shakespeare is the central focus of the book—and the series—Rokison-Woodall places Hytner's Shakespeare productions within the context of his whole theatrical—and cinematic—output as a director.

These other productions, from his appearances in Cambridge Footlights, his directing of opera and West End shows of the scale of Miss Saigon, his work on new plays mixed with Shakespeare and the likes of Schiller, Wycherley and Marlowe at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre to his close relationship with Alan Bennett at the National, are not treated superficially but are examined as though essential for a full understanding of Hytner's style and development as a director.

For instance, Rokison-Woodall keeps highlighting the frequency of the word 'operatic' in reviews of all but his most recent work to describe the scale of his productions, suggesting that his work in opera had a significant influence on his staging of plays. It is also suggested that his emphasis on comedy in some Shakespeare productions may come from his performances at Cambridge, directed by soon-to-be comedy stars including Jimmy Mulville, Douglas Adams and Griff Rhys Jones.

This is a fascinating guided tour in the hands of someone who appears to have a thorough knowledge and great love of her subjects—both Hytner and Shakespeare—that I feel has left me with a much deeper understanding of both, as well as recalling some great productions that I was lucky enough to see.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

Are you sure?