Be­hind the scenes at the Na­tional

Two ex­cel­lent new au­to­bi­ogra­phies re­veal the ten­sions, chal­lenges and Eureka mo­ments that make great the­atre

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.