EIBF 2017: Nicholas Hytner: Making Theatre Popular

Edinburgh Festival review
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Nicholas Hytner’s ‘Balancing Acts’ is the latest in a considerable line of memoirs produced by former directors of England’s National Theatre. Peter Hall and Richard Eyre have both written unavoidably different accounts of their tenures of a post that combines all the competing tensions of being theatrical director, accountant and publicist with the added ones of artistic champion and figurehead in addition to curious court factotum.

To contrive to do so for twelve years takes some effort, but highlights from Hytner’s gossip-laden tale of those years were rolled out without seeming effort apart from an occasional prompt from James Runcie during the event in the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre.

Hytner’s apparently effortless raconteuring, however, disguises a shrewd and when necessary ruthless operator, which Hytner himself revealed; when actor Michael Gambon was stretchered out of the rehearsal room during a production of Alan Bennett’s ‘The Habit of Art’, and Gambon was asked if he had any assurances for those still in it, he answered ‘don’t worry about those bastards, they’ll be on the phone to Simon Russell Beale’. Hytner was doing exactly that.

Perhaps it’s the savage camaraderie of the theatrical male that has, at least until lately, meant female directors and playwrights have felt excluded from major production houses and companies, a situation Hytner acknowledges in his book.

The discussion ranging over Hytner’s many successes during his time at the National Theatre – ‘Warhorse’, ‘The History Boys’, ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ and the highly successful NT Live cinema broadcasts, as well as Hytner’s ticketing policies, meant there was little time left to talk about his new venture, the Bridge Theatre, offering new work on a commercial basis. Nevertheless, the audience for this well-attended event showed no signs of leaving in any way dissatisfied.

Nicholas Hytner, Balancing Acts, Jonathan Cape, £20.00