Primrose Hill local Nicholas Hytner has written a memoir of his time as Director of the National Theatre, and I was riveted…

During Nicholas Hytner’s tenure as director, the National Theatre became a backdrop of common experience, a commentary on our times, a communal conversation, a compelling influence and education.  After all, who wasn’t aware of the smash-hit One Man, Two Guvnors starring James Corden?  Or the ambitiously-staged His Dark Materials? Adrian Lester’s 2003 Henry V, becoming entwined with Colonel Tim Collins’s address on the eve of the invasion of Iraq; Alan Bennett’s The History Boys; Great Britain by Richard Bean which, with its clear similarities to the trial of Rebekah Brooks, caused Hytner and his team to tread a fine line between examining the role – and mis-deeds –  of the press and making sure they didn’t get sued.

Hytner writes with an easy charm, his anecdotes entertaining and relevant and populated by the national treasures who are part of the fabric of the National Theatre and beyond: Richard Griffiths, Simon Russell Beale, Dame Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour. There’s even room in his book for a cameo by Donald Trump. Affection permeates throughout, for this cast of characters, for the theatre and the arts in general, and for his audiences – those who were already theatre devotees and those who were yet to be engaged, but who Hytner realised could be drawn in through his initiatives for cheaper tickets and later by NT Live, the streaming of performances into local cinemas. Both initiatives were hugely successful in broadening access to the National Theatre and are as much a part of his legacy as the rich smorgasbord of productions he brought the stages of the NT.  And all this was achieved despite the constant presence of a busking saxophonist playing Moon River outside his window.

Self-deprecating, perceptive, downright funny, full of grace and as well-written as anything he has brought to the stage, Hytner entertains and educates through his memoir in much the same way as he did through the theatre. His next project is to open the Bridge Theatre later this year with his longtime collaborator Nick Starr, and I think we can hope and expect this new chapter to intrigue, delight, challenge and entertain as much as the events chronicled in Balancing Acts.

Two complaints, however. Firstly: there are no pictures! Not that they would have brought his book to life any more than his words have so brilliantly done already, but the theatre is a visual art and I would have loved to have seen how these people and productions looked, and to have put faces to the less-familiar backstage names.  Secondly: Hytner’s telling of the events of his directorship is so compelling that I now wish that I had seen every single one of his productions. Please could he find a way to turn back time so that I can correct that lapse on my part.

Balancing Acts, Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre by Nicholas Hytner is published by Jonathan Cape Vintage, costs £20 and is available, of course, at Primrose Hill Books.

© 2017 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.

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