Monday, 23 October 2017

HE IS SIR NICHOLAS HYTNER

I interviewed Nick Hytner for the first time the other day, and I thought it turned out rather well, and I could barely really scratch the surface with what I could get into the Time Out article, so here we go, a lot of stuff on British theatre, the Bridge, An Octoroon, some rather vague answers on diversity, and THE SVERM QUESTION – uncut. It's pretty much a transcript though tidied up a bit. Anyway, enjoy, obviously I slightly regret not getting him to slag off Gove now but it's quite a good theatre geek chat, I hope.




Did you leave the National to start the Bridge, or was it just a case of needing to find something to do once you’d left? 
Well we knew we’d leave the National, Nick Starr and me, and we both wanted to go on making theatre and I wanted to go on directing theatre and the idea came from Nick initially - we didn’t particularly fancy going off to the West End and joining the long queue of producers trying to get hold of theatres for a season and I’m not sure that seasonal thing quite makes sense, there aren’t that many theatre in the West End that you actually really wanna be in. But also we neither of us have a particular history in the West End, neither of us are particularly attached to the West End as an institution and we start thinking how would it be if we built our own. 

There are sound commercial imperatives behind it, 25 percent more tickets are sold now than there were ten years ago – that’s levelled off but it’s not declining, there’s certainly enough ticket buyers there. 

Is it hard to build a new theatre? 
We looked at all sorts of way of doing it – the particular site we’re at was a stroke of good luck, Nick had already left, we d started talking to property developers and we’d realised that if you were talking to developers building big, multi-purpose developments, when you explain to them what a theatre audience attracted to their site might do for their development as a whole then we were finding people pretty receptive. Some recent London property developments, quite a lot of them come with planning permission that insist on a degree of culture but it’s usually small stuff not sustainable without subsidy or philanthropy of some kind, quite often they just disappear down the plug hole. And I think quite a lot of the local authorities are aware of that. So here, by good fortune, is something already built with 50,000 square feet a big, huge kind of concrete void with a Section 108 from Southwark Council, looking for a tenant because they had one but it fell through. 

So they were just looking for a cultural 'thing’? 
They were looking for a cultural 'thing’ but they had no idea what it was going to be and so two-and-a-half years ago we started a process of bidding. There were some rival bids, galleries, that kind of thing, but we persuaded them that ours was the best. And so that’s what it is. It’s flats, it’s expensive flats and restaurants all that kind of stuff, which happened to have a huge aircraft hangar-sized void in the bottom and a lovely riverside frontage. 

Did you actually know what you were doing?
By good fortune or maybe because we kind of rumbled how this was going to work if this was going to work we’d been working already with Steve Tompkins on something which in concept can be more or less any size but the shorthand is it’s a prefabricated theatre, it’s a theatre Steven has designed with an American company who do all the big stadium rock gigs, that’s who they are. The brilliant things about that is they’re developing all the things you need to put on a huge tour at very short notice – apparently those tours, if Taylor Swift wants to tour she decides quite soon before they start and they pull together an enormous show and it has to go up like that and come down like that and go on to the next city, they go up in three days. And they started to think, what if you had a proper theatre that could go up in not days, but months, which you could kind of then replicate that came in a kind of kit, so we’d already been working on that, knowing that all we were looking for was a void to put it in. 

Relatively speaking has it been quite a quick process? 
I think it probably has happened very quickly - it could now happen again relatively quickly if the space was available for it. And I think we will now be now – not necessarily looking to do it at the same scale, but maybe do it at a bigger scale as other opportunities arise. Because all other things aside, why should commercial theatre of good quality be limited to a few old theatres in the West End? It’s totally flexible, this space can do anything, that is how people write and direct and create shows these days, and you can’t do that in even the most beautiful West End theatres. And there’s all the stuff we’ve already talked about, all the ladies’ loos, all that stuff. 

And I take it you don’t view the commercial and subsidised sector as different worlds? 
They’re demonstrable not. I think if you went to Paris they would be - even the actors don't move from one to another. But here they do and if you look at the most successful West End shows, they’ve either come from and most of the plays - almost all of the plays have come from the subsidised sector, they’re totally mutually interdependent.  

Hardly any new writing goes directly into the commercial sector – why? And why do you think you can change it?
It's a mystery. It’s not that much of a mystery. I’m just about old enough to remember when playwrights like Joe Orton, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, even occasionally Harold Pinter were writing for the West End. That all stopped because they all migrated to the subsidised theatres. Why not try again? 

I read in your book (Balancing Acts) that The Lady in the Van only went to the West End because Maggie Smith hates the Lyttelton…
She doesn't like the Lyttelton. And also that’s the theatre she comes from, she started off in Revue in the West End. 

Is the Bridge basically just a fancier version of the Lyttelton?
Well actually it’s a bigger capacity than the Lyttelton… I don't want to be rude about the Lyttelton because I love the Lyttelton – I particularly love the Olivier, I love them both – but honestly if you were designing them now, you’d put those seats in a smaller volume of space. They only problem with the Olivier is it’s 1150 seats and it looks like it’s more. So what we’re trying to do now is partly a consequence of better engineering. Nick Starr is fond of saying that theatre engineering has not really advanced since the invention of the cantilever. But yeah it is, it’s 900 comfortable seats, the long thrust is a probably a bit less, the promenade probably a bit more, but it won’t feel as big as the Lyttelton. It’s not like you need that number of seats to make money; you need that number of seats to do plays that have big costs - we could perfectly happily run a smaller theatre but you wouldn't be able to put on Young Marx. Nightfall, Barney Norris's play, is a four-hander you don't need a 900-seat theatre to put that one, but we love it. 

So is it a West End theatre or isn't it?
Well here’s another difference – commercial produces in the West End, they're a pretty determined, strong-willed and heroic bunch, because they’ve first got to join the queue for the good theatres, then they've got to join what is in effect a seller's market, the landlords have so many people hustling for their theatres they can take turns. But also they have to show a profit every single show. We don’t. Because we have raised the money we needed to build the theatre and put on the first tranche of show upfront and as long as we now continue to operate a small surplus we’ll be okay. If we choose we can cover modest successful and even modestly unsuccessful shows with more successful ones, we don’t need to return money to our investors, we’re in a different game really. 

Is it easier than running the National?
It’s differently stressful. Actually for me it has been less work, Nick has very much driven the building of the theatre, but I am now about to start doing rather more work. 

Where are you finding these plays? Did you take anything from the National? Do you have a literary department?
Nothing from the National. It’s basically me and Nick mucks in and David Sabel mucks in and Will Mortimer from Hampstead work for us one day every fortnight. So it's basically writers that I know or writers that I admire. It’s not to the same degree as it was at at the national, but then there are fewer people to programme. Almost everything we commissions will be staged. We’re not reading everything, we can’t do that and we don't particularly want to, we don't have the capacity. And also it’s a very particular thing we’re asking for, it's stuff that has the muscle. We’ve said eight of them and there are more that didn’t feel comfortable that they were in a place to be talked about. 

I read you have a new Branden Jacob-Jenkins play… 
Where did you hear that? 

He said it himself in an interview with Exeunt
Well there is, that's good. I saw An Octoroon two-and-a-half years ago. That was one of the very few times I felt frustrated not being at the National so I could bring it over. That was a dazzling production as much as anything else. It was by Sarah Benson the director of Soho Rep who is English and Branden told me that one of the reasons she was in New York is that she felt there was no place for her in the London theatre and honestly my blood went cold and I thought, ‘is this my fault?’. Luckily when I met her it turned out she moved to New York in 2001 so I’m not responsible at all. So yeah Brandon came in as soon as we started thinking about this really. So these are people who like Richard Bean I have a long relationship with or Sam Holcroft was one of my absolute favourites from the National. But they will all go on writing for the National. They all get it, it’s a really interesting thing that's happened to dramatists, compared to when I came in – they have such various careers, they write for the movies, for long-form TV, Sam is about to run a writers room with her partner – it’s completely brilliant. If you're a dramatist you can pick up the form you want to write. 

You don't have the Arts Council breathing down your neck anymore but you were quite pointed about letting people know there was gender parity in your commissions – is diversity important to you now that you're under no real obligations to it?
Well you want to because it’s good. The great thing is that I don't have to make speeches about it, I don’t need to make a song and dance. Diversity will just happen because it just happening is plainly on all levels a good thing. It’s good because it’s appealing, attractive inclusive, exciting, because any sentient people would want to. It’s an art-form which is by nature by definition exclusive, it happens for a few hundred people a night, we’re constantly struggling about that, so obviously. But I don't have to make speeches about it. 

If there’s a new Alan Bennett play, do you expect it’ll be staged here? 
Yeah [laughs] 

Why Young Marx as the opening play?
Well listen, it was partly because it's what was ready. Richard writes very quickly – if people had sat in the corner of the National Theatre green room and taken money on what we’d open with, they’d probably have said 'a Richard Bean play'. And also Rory - it felt like a great collection of people to get together. I’m not whatever age I am – over 60! – it’s not like I’m going to be – I hope I reinvent the wheel as far as how I approach shows all the time, you fear as a director falling back on old tricks, but as far as feeling confident about the people I’m working with is concerned I’ve got no problem with that. If you’re going to make a play about the vast and often funny bap between flesh and blood and icon you couldn't do better than go to Marx. It’s a play that’s the most absurd whenever it’s the most true. He lived a brilliantly absurd life, gloriously self-centred and uncompromising and chaotic. He was emotionally illiterate the way great geniuses often are, but he was obviously also must have been infinitely forgivable because people stuck with him throughout his life. It's one of those ones where you don't want to say what the plot is because it'll make people’s eyes pop out. You want a red exclamation mark to come on every time you thought the writer was dicking with you. It’s an appealing play. 

Is what's been announced so far the basic deal with your programming: new writing with the odd bit of Shakespeare?
I think so - maybe occasionally not Shakespeare. You've obviously read the book but I take a bit of a potshot at the thing called new writing, but I take a bit of a potshot at new writing, but I love great new plays. I don't want anybody to think that the policy of this theatre is new writing because it’s virtuous to be committed to new writing. The great thing about theatre is that it doesn’t want to just be entertaining and it doesn’t want to be just challenging, it wants to be both. The movie audience I think maybe want to be entertained - the theatre audience is paying enough to want more than that – I think the best way to do that is to put on great new plays, the biggest hits were always new things. Well-cast Shakespeare would do just fine, but the stuff that really reached out beyond people who usually go to the National was stuff that’s new. So that’s what I love doing at the moment and I also love doing Shakespeare. And Julius Caesar - I'm not the only person to think of doing that at the moment – I've been doing theatre long enough to know that that happens. 

Is it a risk to put on a smaller show like Nightfall? 
Yeah, sure, but we’re doing it for six weeks, seven weeks rather than three months. I’ll tell you the other thing we’re doing here, we’re rightly proud of this theatre, rightly or wrongly, and we’re giving you end on, promenade, and Nightfall is on the long thrust which is why I’m confident you can do a quiet intimate play. 

Are the five other plays officially announced the five next plays on? 
I would have thought that those plays will take two or three years to arrive. There are other plays which we didn't announce and we probably will do first. I think we’ll just put a couple of shows on later in the autumn because they're ready to be put on sale. I have no state of the nation statement to make, there won't be themed seasons. I think we’d like to release ourselves from all that; we’re going to be here a long time. Unless we go belly up, That would be a spectacular failure! [laughs weirdly heartily]

Do you see this as, you know, your last job?
You will find that as the years pass it never occurs to you that you're not 30, you don’t find yourself thinking – you don't find yourself thinking ‘oh, I’ll do this and stop’ – I’m sure everybody thinks ‘I never expected to be this age’. 

But you're in this for the long term, yes?
Well you know, it’s ours. It’s a business, it’s a start-up, it’s Dragons’s Den, there's money invested in this business and at some point we will have to find a way – but not for several years, we’ll have to find way to make sure the people who invested in us do okay but we get to decide to do whatever it is that we want to do. But yeah it belongs to us and our investors, we’re kind of able to do what we like.  Should it be on the list theatre that the theatre crowd starts gossiping about the succession of? No, fuck off. 

Are you aware there’s a Norwegian punk band called Sverm who’ve done a song called I am Sir Nicholas Hytner? 

Long pause.
I have never come across it. 

It exists. 
With Lyrics in Norwegian or English? 

Difficult to say.  
Listen, I’m not going to say I have never Googled myself, I would have thought I’d have come across this. 

Finds it on Google.
Jesus Christ. 

We study the accompanying picture, of Hytner in a nice cardie.  
That’s a particularly vile picture. 

For some reason it won’t play in my phone so he searches for on it his. 
Who calls me Sir Nicholas Hytner? Nobody. I cannot believe I am putting in my own name into YouTube. ‘I am Sir Nicolas’… I’m not going to put in 'Hytner'. 

Finds it.
154 views. Who are the 154? 

We listen to the song, a grindingly atonal thrash.
Are they saying 'I am Sir Nicholas Hytner'? 

I honestly can't tell. 
I am completely thrilled, I could do without the Sir but I am completely thrilled. I am amazed. Thank you so much for that. Only 154 people have viewed it. Now 155 I guess. That’s amazing. The brilliant thing about being Sir Nicholas in our world is you can guarantee that whenever it’s used, it’s used sarcastically.