Hytner presided over one of the most successful periods in the National Theatre’s history; this book is a satisfying explanation of how he did itby Sarah Crompton / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre by Nicholas Hytner (Jonathan Cape, £20)
Nicholas Hytner’s compelling memoir of his 12 years in charge of the National Theatre from 2003 to 2015 describes the great theatrical conundrums: the way you start with a vision and end up with a compromise; how you want to make art but know you’re in showbusiness; how you want to take risks but have got one eye on the box office.
Such were Hytner’s “balancing acts.” Yet the book’s title could also be applied to the author’s prose. This is a controlled performance, revealing exactly as much as he wants it to. This means there is quite a lot about running a theatre and not very much about himself. He presided over one of the most commercially and artistically successful periods in the NT’s history; this book is a satisfying explanation of how he did it. It is full of anecdote—the near-disastrous run-ups to ultimately triumphant shows such as His Dark Materials and War Horse are beautifully captured, and the actors and playwrights who stalk the halls are nailed perfectly. Whether it’s Harold Pinter storming across a restaurant to abuse the author or James Corden’s audition for The History Boys. “Late in the day, the door flies open and in barrels a fat guy who never stops talking. He’s either super-confident or super-nervous but either way he’s very funny.”
It’s also insightful about directing Shakespeare, about the ways in which theatre should be popular and all-embracing. It is canny about the theatrical world over which he spread his pragmatic, sharp-eyed gaze: “A producer’s notes can’t turn a bad show into a good one. I sometimes turned a bad show into a mediocre show and a debacle into a merely bad one. But my job was never as satisfying as it was when I could give a good show a final nudge.”