Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Book Review: Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner (Jonathan Cape, 2017)




Nicholas Hytner’s twelve year tenure as Artistic Director of the National Theatre is widely regarded as among the most successful and dynamic directorships of one of Britain’s flagship cultural institutions. Hytner took over the role from Trevor Nunn in 2003, and immediately shook things up at the Southbank venue via a game-changing £10 ticket scheme and some unexpected programming; the inclusion of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera in his first season allegedly prompted one NT regular to call the box office and enquire: “I want to see this new opera, but who is Jerry Springer?”

Buoyed by that successful and slightly subversive first season, Hytner went on to preside over an exceptionally fertile and creative period in the NT’s history, one that combined new plays and adaptations (such as The History Boys and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) with sharp revivals (Rattigan’s After the Dance), crowd-pleasing entertainments (the Cumber-Miller Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, and War Horse) and a smattering of exquisite, innovative musicals, both imported (Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change) and brand new (Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess).

Such successes mean that Hytner’s account of his time at the NT (published just a few months before he launches his new venture, The Bridge Theatre) has been eagerly awaited, not only by those of us who saw a great deal of the productions staged under his tenure, but also by those interested in the UK theatre scene more broadly. Sadly, though, Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre proves disappointing: the book is erroneously advertised, unillustrated, and indifferently written, though not without a few scattered insights to keep the reader on board.

Unlike former directors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, whose accounts of their time at the NT were presented in journal form, Hytner “kept no diary” (p.15) during his tenure. This means that Balancing Acts lacks the sense of immediate, day-to-day ups-and-downs that are conveyed so vividly in Hall and Eyre’s books, and instead adopts a necessarily more retrospective approach. The book begins quite strongly: after an introduction that sketches out a “typical” day running the NT, Hytner describes his route to this much-coveted position. He contextualises the early 21st century London theatre scene with brisk precision, noting the vogue at that time for intimate, studio venues (such as the Donmar Warehouse, where he himself directed a galvanising production of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in 2000) and the need for the National “to be the big public alternative” (p.40) to those smaller spaces.

As it progresses, though, Balancing Acts starts to feel more and more like a book with an identity crisis, and one that fails to fully make good on its subtitle. By far the most satisfying sections are those in which Hytner indeed takes the reader “behind the scenes” of the theatre: his reflections on the development of particular productions (such as his “euphoric” experience on The History Boys, his Iraq War-referencing Henry V, and his hugely ambitious staging of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) are all interesting, as are his accounts of important innovations like the £10 ticket scheme, and NT Live, which broadcasts productions to cinemas worldwide.

But, in totality, the book feels partial and fragmented, with strange focus and odd digressions. Hytner laments that he does not have “space to mention many … excellent new plays” (p.293) and emphasises that “the book does not record everything that happened at the National Theatre between 2003 and 2015” (p. 287). Naturally enough, but, if space is such a consideration, then why waste time on lengthy accounts of his film work and pre-NT musical productions, neither of which are directly relevant to this project? Ultimately, the book seems uncertain about what it’s trying to accomplish: it’s a strange hybrid of a text, more a general career retrospective than a comprehensive portrait of the NT’s workings.



Hytner offers some engaging general commentaries on, for example, “the negotiations with contemporary sensibility that old plays normally require” (p.180) and “the challenge of bridging the gap between Shakespeare’s world and our own” (p.31). But the white heat of collaboration, the  personalities of the directors and actors and designers  involved, are not conveyed very vividly, and the book certainly lacks the characterful, textured quality of  another artistic director’s recent swansong publication: Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet: Globe to Globe. 

There’s also a disproportionate emphasis on hits: while Hytner is frank in identifying a few disappointing productions, he never once goes in to bat for an underrated show, preferring to focus on what he terms “hot tickets”. (Pretty much all that he has to say about Deborah Warner’s great Fiona Shaw-starring production of Mother Courage and her Children, for example, is that Shaw is “always a hot ticket.”) While the financial complications of running the NT receive some illuminating reflections, Hytner gradually comes to seem as preoccupied with box office as any Hollywood mogul.

In terms of style, Hytner’s writing veers uneasily between confession (“in the safety of the rehearsal room I … confront all the stuff that threatens to be too painful in the world outside” [p.126]) and evasiveness (he claims to have no memory at all of the interview that secured him the NT job). And I’m not sure what’s going on in the closing “Casts and Creatives” chapter, which consists of a seemingly random selection of brief remarks about stage moments and performances, some already mentioned in the book, and many not even connected to Hytner’s work at the NT.

In a predictably glowing review, Richard Eyre praises Hytner’s book for conveying  “the anatomy and psychology of a large organisation.” In fact, that’s precisely what Balancing Acts fails to achieve. The book is worth reading for its scattered observations, such as Hytner’s sage remarks about directors’ personal investment in a play: “[D]irectors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience out. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to its audience” (p.26). As the book’s title indicates, that notion of “balance” is central to Hytner’s conception of theatre, which he describes early on as a series of negotiations between art and commerce, vision and compromise. It’s a shame, then, that, when it comes to combining the specifics of particular productions  with general reflections on theatre as an art-form,  this highly anticipated publication fails to get the balance right.