The founding director of London’s National Theatre was Laurence Olivier, but by the new century there was a kind of disconnect between what the National had on the boards and what the public was coming to see. It became Nicholas Hytner’s personal and professional charge to close that gap, thereby filling seats, operating at capacity and making the National solvent.
How he accomplished all of this is at the heart of ‘Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre,’ an eminently readable account of his 12 years as the theater’s artistic director. And the book is affectionately gossipy, as well.
Hytner was made artistic director of the National in the early part of this century. During that time, he directed productions that had been nurtured by the National and were seen worldwide by millions, plays such as “The Madness of George III,” “The History Boys” and “War Horse.” Hytner also directed the original production of the musical “Miss Saigon.”
He has collaborated with major playwrights from Arthur Miller to Tom Stoppard to Harold Pinter. Actors from Helen Mirren to Maggie Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis to Benedict Cumberbatch, have worked for Hytner on stage and on film. (He even, tongue firmly in cheek, amusingly takes some credit for TV personality James Corden and, especially, his “Carpool Karaoke.”)
What Hytner does in this engaging memoir ends up being testament to his high regard professionally. What could have been a technical rehashing of his tenure at London’s National Theatre ends up being a highly readable and fascinating synthesis of his years as basically “CEO” of London’s state-supported theater and as one of its most valued and creative directors.
Yet “Balancing Acts” is by no means a rarefied look at the mysteries of making art. It is as remarkably entertaining as any of the productions Hytner has brought to life.
He is an incisive teacher and critic. Hytner argues that William Shakespeare is “an actor who provides for other actors myriad ways of telling his stories and of being his characters. His intuitive openness to interpretation is sometimes mistaken for unfathomable complexity. His relish for ambiguity is taken as a challenge to those who would pin him down. But they are consequences of his calling: he writes plays.”
Hytner admires the inestimable talents of those around him. He freely admits about Maggie Smith, “There is nothing Maggie can’t do.” He praises the film work of Daniel Day-Lewis: “Out of Daniel’s complete absorption come performances that stand comparison with the best in the history of cinema.” He admires the versatility of John Lithgow on stage: “His face, which can congeal into immobility and ooze tyranny, turns rubbery with panic when he plays farce.”
A great deal of his memoir is devoted to his abiding friendship with playwright Alan Bennett, whose play “The History Boys” Hytner calls “as good a time as I’ve ever had in the theatre.”
What becomes evident on nearly every page of “Balancing Acts” is not only the professional and natural honesty of Nicholas Hytner but also his unwavering sense of purpose: “If you direct somebody else’s play, your job is to be useful to it. If you have nothing to say about it, if it means nothing to you, if you think that all you have to do is get out of its way, you end up draining the life out of it. But directors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks an audience out.”
To his mind, every theatrical production, every film, is that manner of balancing act.
Steven Whitton is a recently retired professor of English.