“I’m going to continue,” Sir Nicholas Hytner declares, with some modesty. As yet there are no concrete plans, but it’s a relief to hear that he “will make theatre for a new company that will…find new ways of making commercial theatre”.
Contemporary British theatre would suffer severely at the loss of this man. Not only has he presided over a golden era at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, he has also widened horizons for audiences across the country and abroad. The History Boys, One Man, Two Guvnors, and War Horse – just a few of the productions that have gone on to play in cities around the world. This time it was the man himself who stepped into the spotlight at The Lowry theatre.
A capacity crowd descended on Salford to hear Hytner and Julia Fawcett, The Lowry’s chief executive, discuss the partnership between their respective theatres. Since the Lowry opened in 2000 this has been a particularly fruitful relationship. Most recent in the catalogue of successes is the touring production of War Horse which has broken records at the Lowry box office (an estimated £8.9 million in revenue so far). And the production has stepped outside the theatre by running youth workshops and community projects for underprivileged communities around Greater Manchester.
Trevor Nunn led the National back when The Lowry partnership was conceived. He followed in the footsteps of the equally distinguished Richard Eyre, Peter Hall and, of course, Laurence Olivier. Clearly this is one of the biggest gigs in British theatre. And one of the toughest too – it’s the National after all – so it’s forever under public scrutiny and money is perpetually at a premium. Considering the weight of the job, the consistency of the National’s success in London (with five directors over 50 years) is staggering. Even more staggering is that Hytner seems so at ease and fresh-faced after more than a decade of these pressures.
Hytner’s nurturing of the National’s partnership with Greater Manchester has arguably produced better results here than any of his predecessors. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Born in Didsbury, he grew up in Manchester’s music halls and attended Manchester Grammar School – it’s clear that he has a personal relationship with the city and its culture.
“It was so easy for me,” Hytner confesses, “because it was there in my hand. I was introduced to it by my parents.” He attributes much of his early enjoyment of classical music and theatre to a fortuitous upbringing in Manchester. And he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Hytner has a strong desire to give back to the region “through our [The National and The Lowry’s] partnership, through our learning and through the educational activity that we both do [so that] kids that don’t have that luck are shown what’s there, are given the chance to find out, because if it’s something that turns them on, there is a lifetime of fulfilment.”
He is also full of praise for a region that has committed itself to cultural resurgence. “Manchester has always been a great theatre city. Manchester always had a taste for the new and for the adventurous.”
Sadly, though, Didsbury’s golden boy will not be returning anytime soon. Instead, Hytner has plans to continue innovating in London. Innovation has been a hallmark of his career.
“I didn’t want to be orthodox, I wanted to identify the orthodoxy somewhere else,” he says. When Hytner began at the National he undertook to “push the repertoire in new and adventurous directions” and, as part of his strategy, oversaw the National’s implementation of live cinema broadcasts of its plays, a project he believes is “the most important innovation” during his time in charge. Performances such as Hytner’s Othello saw audience figures – which reached approximately 110,000 during its entire run in the Olivier theatre on the South Bank – double in just one night as a result of being beamed direct to cinema screens across the world.
After the main discussion, we sit backstage. Even in the dim light of the fittingly positioned ‘Exit’ sign, he is arrestingly animated on the topic of newness and relevance in theatre. Despite this emphasis on the “new and adventurous” throughout his career, there seems now to be a note of apprehension. He acknowledges that he may no longer be the best representative for the new: “The young ones are now looking at me and thinking, ‘You’re orthodox, you’re tradition, you’re the past. We want to give you a kicking.’ But I think that has always got to happen.”
Hytner himself recognises that he too needed the “old” in order to define himself as new and relevant, and he knows that it is important for the new generation of theatre-makers to view him in the same way for theatre to continue to evolve. He has great respect for “young artists making new stuff with a new, sometimes aggressive, sensibility that, hopefully, is going to rub your parents’ generation up the wrong way and your grandparents’ generation very badly up the wrong way. That’s hopefully what will always happen and it is very important that it does.” He may no longer be this type of theatre-maker but “I hope I am not personally as an artist or as a producer repeating old tricks.”
There is no danger of that. “If you start to play to a sense of stability, to play to a sense of what you think the audience want, that’s the surest way to fail because what they want, by and large, is something they haven’t seen before…what they want is something new.”
By the sound of it, newness and innovation will be crucial components in his next venture. So, the NT baton will be passed, but “given the kind of flair that Rufus Norris has brought to his career so far” the public theatre will keep pushing in new and adventurous directions.
Young theatre-makers may want to give the older generation a bit of a kicking. But I suspect that 2015 will see Sir Nicholas Hytner proving he can still kick back.
Northern Soul talked to Sir Nicholas after his discussion with chief executive of The Lowry Julia Fawcett. As a partner company of The Lowry, the National Theatre regularly tours work to Salford. War Horse will return in the Summer. Click here for details of how to book http://www.thelowry.com/events/war-horse-2014/book-tickets/