BALANCING ACTS: BEHIND THE SCENES OF LONDON'S NATIONAL THEATRE
By Nicholas Hytner
Alfred A, Knopf, $28.95, 320 pages
In 2009 Britain's National Theatre began making high-definition films of live productions for relay to cinemas. Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner was elated that audiences world-wide could watch "the same event at the same time as the audience in the theatre." His enthusiasm for bringing drama to the widest possible audience is one of the underpinnings of "Balancing Acts," his memoir of his years (2003 -2015) at the National.
NTLive, as it is known, has now filmed productions as varied as "Phedre" with Helen Mirren, "One Man, Two Guvnors"with James Corden, and "Frankenstein" with Benedict Cumberbatch - a play that exemplifies another underpinning of Nicholas Hytner's tenure: his eagerness to explore classic texts in engaging ways.
Unlike Mary Shelley's original 1818 novel and its numerous adaptations, the National's version told the tale from the Creature's point of view rather his creator's. Moreover, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, the starring actors, rotated their roles. "This made conceptual sense," the author writes. "The creator and created are two sides of the same coin."
Having broadened the audience by introducing 10-pound (about 13 dollars) tickets for some performances, Nicholas Hytner enticed audiences with a rich repertoire of classic, modern and brand-new plays. No less than 70 playwrights were under commission when he left the National. Most importantly, all the plays that had been produced reflected or interrogated, the contemporary world regardless of the era when they were written.
Shakespeare is the shining example. Beginning his time at the National by directing a Shakespeare play was almost a given, but he explains "I wanted to start with a play that seemed most likely to speak as if it were written yesterday. In 2002, this was 'Henry V.' British troops were involved in military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I thought I could explore through Shakespeare what it felt like for the country to be at war."
By opening night Britain was also at war with Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair had struggled to rationalize this by recourse to "a notorious justification" from the attorney general. Likewise, "Henry V" begins with the king strong-arming his council to justify his unprincipled invasion of France, "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" he demands.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury hands around a dossier in the National's production, "The audience, force fed by news media on U.N. resolutions and dodgy dossiers caught on immediately." Noting also that Shakespeare's Henry rivals 21st century politicians in his reliance on spin, he concludes, "'Henry V' wasn't the subtlest or best Shakespeare I directed at the National, but I never got closer to unmasking him as the new century's sharpest political commentator."
The relevance of the plays he directed makes his discussions of them compelling reading. His commentaries on Shakespeare's "Henry IV" plays and "Othello" are exceptionally so. Since his observations stem from both textual analysis and practical staging issues, it casts more light than academic literary criticism penned in libraries.
It's also expressed more succinctly. And it's balanced. Emphatic as he is about contemporary significance, Mr. Hytner is alert to historical changes too. Writing of "the paranoid surveillance state" of Hamlet's Elsinore and the world today, he notes the very great differences yet affirms that "Among the reasons to do the classic repertoire are both the discovery that things never change, and the discovery that things change completely."
While Shakespeare and other classics are dear to his heart, he is no less thrilled by virtuoso contemporary plays such as Simon Stephen's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and "The History Boys" - one of the National's greatest successes, written by Alan Bennett, with whom he has had a long and productive friendship.
It's not a surprise then that his thoughts on Mr. Bennett's plays, especially his descriptions of directing and producing them, are a pleasure to read.
His vignettes of Alan Bennett and Harold Pinter, whose prickliness was legendary, are also fun, while his comments on actors often open little windows. Daniel Day-Lewis and Dame Maggie Smith he lists among those stars "whose gift is absolute." Helen Mirren, he says, is "always a pioneer." Gary Oldman - who can "quote most of Hamlet by heart" - was "relentlessly sexy, almost psychotic also very funny" in Wycherley's "The Country Wife."
Some descriptions of less familiar actors or plays and the ins and outs of the workings of the National Theatre may not engage all readers, but most of this book is both fascinating and pleasurable - and certainly a must-read for devotees of NTLive and the theater in general.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.