Nicholas Hytner is very clear. “It’s not an absolute virtue to love the theatre.” Art is a good thing “not because it makes you a better person but because you’ll have a more interesting time if you find it.”

“The mistake we make is to think it’s a useful defence of art to say that by appreciating it we improve morally. You can see Hamlet and still mug someone on the way home.”

Hytner was talking last night to Joan Bakewell at Cecil Sharp House, Primrose Hill. The delighted two hundred-strong audience had turned out for the double benefit of hearing the Director of the National Theatre in conversation with the veteran broadcaster, as well as supporting the Primrose Hill Community Library.

Hytner took over as Director of the NT from Sir Trevor Nunn in 2003, and is now stepping down from the role himself. Bakewell, a former National Theatre board member so particularly well-placed as interviewer, skilfully drew from Hytner an exploration of the particular mark he will leave on this much-loved institution.

Firstly, Hytner is credited for opening up the theatre experience to a larger audience by introducing cheaper tickets:

“The National Theatre had been pricing itself out of the market,” he explained, ‘and I felt that a theatre ticket must be the approximate cost of a film or a paperback. People mustn’t feel they can’t afford to come. I wanted not just to reduce but to slash ticket prices.”

The new £10 ticket bracket resulted in much fuller auditoriums and gave a sense that Hytner had “flung the door open,” as he put it, with all of the energy and enthusiasm that implies.

Hand-in-hand with the £10 tickets was Hytner’s repertoire, which seemed to spark the public imagination. Shakespeare of course – Simon Russell Beale was electrifying as King Lear last year; Othello in 2013 had ‘all the hallmarks of Hytner at his best,’ according to Charles Spencer in the Telegraph – but also new plays, such as The History Boys by Alan Bennett, which premiered at the Lyttleton in 2004 and has since become a classic; family-orientated plays around Christmastime such as the recent Treasure Island and last year’s Emile and the Detectives; and plays considered difficult, such as Shaw’s Man and Superman, which has just opened with Ralph Fiennes to encouraging reviews. Twenty plays are produced each year and the spectrum is eclectic.

“The mix really is remarkable,” mused Bakewell, adeptly giving a public conversation the sense of an intimate chat. “I wonder how it came about.”

Hytner’s love and enthusiasm for theatre seems to have been the driving force.

“You need to be a genuine enthusiast for all corners of the repertoire,” he explained. “Every time I’ve given the green light I’ve thought ‘I really want to see this!’ We need to honour and explore the classical repertoire but there is so much energy now from those who write.”

Bakewell gently probed Hytner on his future plans, but he is not ready to reveal these yet; a project exists, but is not yet firm enough to announce. “Best not to reveal it yet in case it fails, so as to avoid maximum humiliation,” he chuckled. Whatever it is, let’s hope it succeeds on a grand scale, just as his tenure at the National and his previous projects succeeded: the artistic and cerebral life of our country and beyond will surely be all the better for it, even if, as he would be quick to point out, we should not expect any personal moral improvement!

Find out more about Primrose Hill Community Library here: Funding and volunteers always welcome.

© 2015 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.

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