Behind the scenes at the National
Two excellent new autobiographies reveal the tensions, challenges and Eureka moments that make great theatre
Michael Billington reviews two new theatre books
TWO books that pass the acid test for any work about the theatre have landed on my desk; both should excite interest beyond the medium’s devout enthusiasts. Nicholas Hytner’s Balancing Acts (Jonathan Cape) inevitably focuses on his 12 years at the National Theatre, but is about the highwire tensions involved in running any large organisation. Tim PigottSmith’s Do You Know Who I Am? (Bloomsbury) obviously gains poignancy from the actor’s unexpected death last month, but offers a probing account of the mysteries surrounding his craft. I read both with enormous profit and pleasure.
Former directors of the National have set the bar high. Peter Hall’s Diaries offers a riveting, day-by-day account of the problems of making the new building work in the teeth of industrial action, media hostility and a collapsing economy. Richard Eyre’s National Service explored the personal strains of being, simultaneously, artist, entrepreneur and political advocate for the Arts.
Sir Nicholas’s book differs from its predecessors in that it’s not a daily diary, but a reflective memoir and, in that, it shows little sign of the bouts of nerveshredding depression that afflicted both Sir Peter and Sir Richard. He explores the crises that affect any theatrical organisation, such as the need to replace an ill Michael Gambon three days into rehearsals of The Habit of Art, but his book is the testimony of a man who relished the challenges of the job and who felt a pang of regret when he gave it up in 2015. I detected only one false note. Sir Nicholas says: ‘At university I realised I couldn’t write and I couldn’t act.’ I can’t speak for his acting ability, but he can certainly write. Commenting on Sir Michael’s mixture of power and delicacy, he says: ‘He looks like he could chop down a forest
‘Nicholas Hytner deserves credit for cheap seats and NT Live, the most revolutionary thing in theatre in my lifetime
in the morning and weave lace in the afternoon.’
Sir Nicholas also has the capacity to compress big ideas into a single sentence. He writes: ‘Popular success is always the consequence of creative conviction.’ He is referring specifically to two of the National’s greatest hits—war Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time—but his aphorism is one that should be framed and placed in golden letters on the desk of any artistic director (or Hollywood producer, for that matter): you can never cynically second guess what the public will like.
Fascinating as it is to be taken behind the scenes, he is at his best when he writes about staging the classics, Shakespeare especially. Again, he stresses the need to strike a balance between ‘the competing claims of then and now’, between the plays as historical documents and revelations of ourselves.
Sir Nicholas is particularly brilliant on Hamlet, when he and the actress playing Gertrude, Clare Higgins, ask a fundamental question: why is Gertrude the only character who apparently doesn’t see the Ghost? From that, they deduce that Gertrude is a habitual liar, whose extravagant description of Ophelia’s suicide is a cover-up for the fact that Claudius has had the poor girl murdered. You can visualise the Eureka-like moment in the rehearsal room when they come to that conclusion.
Sir Nicholas also says his most mind-expanding insights into Shakespeare have come from working with actors. The reader senses a similar complicity with Rory Kinnear, who decides to play Iago as a shortterm tactician rather than a longterm strategist, and with Simon Russell Beale, who sees Timon of Athens as a man who uses money as his armour against the world.
Although Sir Nicholas pays generous tribute to colleagues, including his executive director Nick Starr, he deserves credit for two ideas that will define his tenure: cheap seats and the transmission of plays to cinemas. The latter, known as NT Live, is the most revolutionary thing to have happened to theatre in my lifetime; it started in 2009 with Helen Mirren in
Phèdre and is now firmly part of the landscape.
It was driven, as Sir Nicholas says, by ‘the contradictory ambition to make theatre for the privileged few on the night and to spread that privilege as widely as possible’. It’s one more example of his uncanny ability to strike a balance between the visionary and the pragmatic.
A director is responsible for the whole enterprise, but an actor’s first duty is to embody a particular character. Inevitably, Pigott-smith’s book is about the strains this can impose on the individual, but I was fascinated by the way it occasionally overlapped with Sir Nicholas’s. As a director, the latter demolishes the myth that film-acting is the art of doing nothing; as a practitioner, Pigott-smith makes exactly the same point by saying that, although it may look as if you’re doing nothing, ‘you are doing everything invisibly’.
When Pigott-smith inherited the running of a touring company, Compass, he also discovered, rather like Sir Nicholas, that it was a difficult juggling act ‘keeping the balls of subsidy, private support and sponsorship in the air’. Where he most resembles the director is in his excitement over investigating the myriad possibilities of a Shakespeare text.
When playing Octavius in Sir Peter’s famous production of
Antony and Cleopatra, with Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench, he realises that the character is no cold fish, but a man of deep emotion: ‘It is tidings to wash the eyes of kings’ is his response to Antony’s death.
When playing the insanely jealous Leontes in The Winter’s
Tale, also for Sir Peter, he discovers a heart condition, myocarditis, that may explain the character’s violent mood swings.
Pigott-smith brings his understanding of Shakespeare to Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III in which, as he says, the blank verse raised the emotional power of the piece to a level that would not have been possible had the play been written in prose.
The great essayist William Hazlitt once said of actors that ‘their life is a voluntary dream, a studied madness’. Although Pigott-smith might agree with that, his book is a refutation of Hazlitt’s idea that ‘it is only when they are themselves that they [actors] are nothing’.
He emerges as a perceptive, intelligent man, who writes vividly about the process of creating a character just as Sir Nicholas is illuminating about the collaborative act of bringing a written text to the stage. You don’t have to be a pro to enjoy two books that offer endless insights into the craft, as well as the business, of making theatre.
War Horse has been one of the National Theatre’s biggest hits
The late Tim Pigott-smith starred as the new monarch in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which can be seen on the BBC iplayer until June 9
Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, was the first production to be screened as part of NT Live