National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner: “I’m done, I’m so fed up of reading my own opinions”

National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner backstage at Cecil Sharp House with Dame Joan Bakewell. Pi

National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner backstage at Cecil Sharp House with Dame Joan Bakewell. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

The NT’s frosty outgoing director may have had enough of the press, but there’s no doubting his impact on the historic London venue, finds Bridget Galton.

In the green room at Cecil Sharp House my chat with outgoing National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner is not going well.

He’s squirming in his plastic chair, pleading not to be photographed “because I look awful” and griping that the Nationals blow his every utterance into 64pt black type.

He’s agreed to support this fundraiser for Primrose Hill community library and it’s clear the presence of even the local press is unwelcome.

“After 12 years of sounding off I am done, I am so fed up of reading my own opinions. Thank goodness, I don’t have to have any opinions any more,” he explains.

So what he’s doing next? “Too early to say.”

What he’s proudest of? “I couldn’t pick one thing.”

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His forthcoming film of The Lady in the Van? “It’s not out until November.”

Downstairs under the skilled coaxing of Dame Joan Bakewell, he defrosts and opens up about his hugely successful tenure at the National.

It turns out that our photographer Polly catches some nice shots of him as he explains that what drove him on was the feeling of being “the guy in the top hat and red coat shouting roll up, roll up!”

“If you run a theatre, it’s in your DNA that you think no-one will buy a ticket tomorrow.

“The fact that I have kept it ticking over, not let it slide down the pan, feels like an achievement to me.”

Anyone who bids to run the National, continues Hytner, has to have a “big idea”.

His was to lower prices to the kind of sum you’d pay for a book or a film screening.

“During the late ‘80s as government investment reduced, the theatre had no alternative but to raise ticket prices but it was pricing itself out of the market.

“The theatre wasn’t full and I wondered, if we sell every ticket will we take as much as we would playing to 65 per cent houses at ticket prices that people think are too high?”

Once his Travelex-sponsored seasons got bums onto seats, Hytner was able to commission the kind of work he became renowned for: ambitious, boundary breaking pieces like Jerry Springer the Opera, London Road, (a verbatim musical about the Suffolk Strangler), War Horse and Elmina’s Kitchen.

“It meant we had total confidence to put on the stuff we wanted: a challenging but incredibly entertaining repertoire by a new generation of writers who developed the muscle to write ambitiously and entertainingly for the big stages,” says Hytner. “From purely a showbusiness point of view the work was more interesting than people sitting around in drawing rooms talking about civilised things from the 1930s.”

If it reflected Britain’s more diverse society, Hytner was irritated at the constant focus on the audience: “I am through with diverse audiences and the spotlight being on ‘does the audience look diverse enough?’

“I want a diverse repertoire so over the course of a year we are appealing to as wide a spectrum as possible. It doesn’t matter that one show has one kind of audience.”

He adds: “It’s not an absolute virtue to like the theatre. I respect people who hate it. I really hate football. High art is not good for you. It’s amazing if you get it, but it doesn’t make you a better person.”

Annually directing just two of the National’s 20 productions, his skills lay as much in producing exciting work as directing hits such as The History Boys, and One Man Two Guvnors.

Aiming for half old and half new with a remit to “honour and explore the classical repertoire,” he laughs that the NT is “essentially programmed in the corridors”.

“I suppose it always has been. Someone gives me the idea, you hear such and such has a new play; do I know who we should be commissioning? It’s never me who sees a play in a room above a pub, it’s someone else who brings it to my attention. They are not all good, we don’t hit the bullseye every time.”

Scripts however that did drop through his Primrose Hill letterbox periodically were new plays by fellow resident Alan Bennett. From The Lady in the Van, The Madness of King George III, to The Habit of Art, Hytner has directed every new play since 1990.

“Alan Bennett has been the biggest stroke of luck I have had,” he confesses.

Even before he turned up for the first time at Gloucester Crescent “clutching my copy of Wind in the Willows” which he was to direct, Hytner would pass Bennett’s house, where a homeless lady called Miss Shepherd had been ensconced in the drive for 18 years, and wonder: “does he keep his mother in a van on the drive?”

“What he liked about me was when he asked ‘how do I do the riverbank and underground homes?’ I said ‘don’t worry, I’ll deal with that. Just write the dialogue’.

“That’s kind of been ideal for 25 years. When he is working he doesn’t like a whole amount of talk. That makes him antsy, he likes to hand over a first draft to me and I will hand it back with detailed notes written all over it.”

Most writers, says Hytner are insecure, and in danger of being pushed by a director “into writing a play they don’t want to write.”

Not so Bennett: “Alan is certain and there’s no way I was going to drag him away from the stuff he felt passionate about. His great genius is that he asks an audience to identify with the most unlikely human derelicts. It’s a much more subversive project than other more overtly subversive playwrights.

“Hector (from The History Boys) is a pathetic reprehensible old groper, Miss Shepherd a selfish cantankerous, smelly, foul old lady, but Alan gets you rooting for them. These plays undertake the most vital of theatrical projects, they ask you to imagine more than you thought you could imagine about other people and their experience.”

It seemed the right time, he tells me, to film The Lady In The Van. “Time for Maggie Smith to play her again, and knowing that Alex Jennings plays Alan a lot better than Alan himself.”

Extensively re-written since its 1990 stage debut, it was filmed in Gloucester Crescent, “around the house it happened with many of the neighbours who lived through it”.

“It came back to the front of our minds as a consequence of the autobiographical plays we did (at the NT) a year ago. Alan’s work about his own creative life and personal circumstances has become increasingly rich and complex as the years have passed.”

Despite directing films of The Crucible, The Madness of King George and The History Boys, Hytner claims he’s not a natural film director.

“Theatre is what I have always done. It’s the language I speak. I always come to the movies in great need of help from people who have done it more often than I. Great film directors think through the camera, which takes me a long time and effort to do. They see narrative as a series of shots whereas I have to think of an action and break it down into a series of shots because I am used to directing real people in a real space in front of an audience in real time.”

He’s full of praise for his successor Rufus Norris and upbeat about the future of theatre, with a 40 per cent increase in London audiences, something he hopes to capitalise on with a future commercial venture in the West End. “The theatre is a huge success story and the great thing about London is theatre-going is more part of popular culture than it is in other great European cities. I very much hope we are not on the edge of decline because of reduced investment but London can tough it out more easily because there is money to be raised and a huge audience to be found.”

Having overseen the start of a £70 million revamp of the NT, he’s left it in good shape and says “what it does, it only does”.

“Ambitious and popular theatre that is emphatically not a niche experience, that gets together large numbers of people to see the same big new play on a scale that makes it part of a national conversation. That’s what’s important.”