The list of Nicholas Hytner's accomplishments is long and distinguished: as Artistic Director of London's National Theatre from 2003-2015, he directed and produced a great number of their most popular and memorable plays and musicals, many of which have come to Broadway: Carousel, Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors, David Hare's Stuff Happens among them. He directed both the London and Broadway productions of Miss Saigon, each of which ran for ten years. He directed Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III on both stage and screen. In short: He is one of today's most successful and admired theatrical impresarios.
In Balancing Acts, Hytner gives us a detailed behind-the-scenes look at his creative process. From reviving classic musicals and mastering Shakespeare to commissioning new plays, he shows theater making to be a necessarily collaborative exercise, and he writes insightfully about the actors and playwrights he's worked with: Derek Jacobi, Richard Griffiths, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard among them. With a cultural range that spans from The Mikado to The Lady in the Van, Balancing Acts is not only a memoir but a gathering of illuminating notes on the art of directing and a thoughtful meditation on the purpose of theater.
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A Way of Looking at Things
Richard Eyre set me up with Alan Bennett in 1990, after I suggested that The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian classic, would make a good Christmas show in the Olivier. We had dinner in Camden, north London, where we both live. As blind dates go it went OK—he said he was up for adapting the book—but we didn’t get on particularly well. I was nervous of saying something stupid so there were long silences; Alan later complained that I had no small talk. He worried about the caravan, the barge, the train, the journeys underground to the houses of Rat, Badger and Mole. I told him if he wrote what he saw, I’d try to stage it. That’s been our deal ever since, though there are fewer silences these days.
His first drafts are always a challenge. He works on a collection of long defunct portable typewriters, so he cuts and pastes, literally, a collage of abysmally typed scenes with barely decipherable handwritten additions. A heroic typist later makes it legible, then I write my notes in the margins. I try to talk him through the notes, but he quickly gets antsy. He’s resistant to any conceptual or thematic enquiries.
“What do you think it’s about, Alan?”
“It’s about the madness of George III.”
I’ve learned to be practical, concrete and succinct. More of this. This goes on too long. This has been said before: do we need it? Scene not clear enough. King’s recovery too laid-back, make more of it. Many of these notes later found their way almost verbatim into The Habit of Art, his play within a play about W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, in exchanges between the actors and the onstage playwright.
fitz (to Author): The reason why I’m forgetting this is because I feel I’ve said it before.
author: You have said it before.
fitz: So do we need it?
“Yes,” snaps the Stage Manager, Alan holding back from putting directly into the playwright’s mouth what he must have often wanted to say to me himself.
The Wind in the Willows was full of things we didn’t strictly need: I hadn’t anticipated that Alan would find in it a subversive psychodrama about the variously repressed lusts of a quartet of Edwardian bachelors.
rat: Do you like old Badger?
mole: Oh yes.
rat: Not too fierce for you?
mole: Fierce? I thought he was very kind.
rat: He is kind.
mole: And understanding.
rat: Of course that comes with age, you see he’s much older than you or me.
mole: He didn’t seem old to me.
rat: Oh, he is . . .
Neither Rat nor Badger, in furious competition for the affections of the oblivious Mole, ever let on that they’d like to do more than warm his little toes; but an audience that came to celebrate the delights of a riverbank picnic was seduced into a kind of complicity with woodland creatures predatory less in tooth and claw than in pyjamas. Meanwhile, the staging took every possible advantage of the Olivier’s drum revolve, which was having one of its intermittent periods in the sun. The designer Mark Thompson, like a Victorian conjuror, produced a real train, a real car, a real barge, and the underground houses really were underground. Their inhabitants opened trapdoors in the stage as the drum corkscrewed up to reveal staircases winding down into cosy front parlours, which were eyed greedily by the weasels, stoats and ferrets who had a sideline as property speculators.
Their proposed redevelopment of Toad Hall as executive apartments and office accommodation is thwarted when Toad, Rat, Badger and Mole expel the occupying forces of wild wooders after a heroic battle. Toad looks for other ways to open his home to a wider public.
“Who knows,” he muses, “Toad Hall might one day have its very own arts festival.”
His riverbank neighbours, content in their Edwardian idyll, aren’t enthusiastic.
Alan has equivocated about the Arcadian past since 1968, when the headmaster in Forty Years On laments the crowd that has found the door to the secret garden: “Now they will tear up the flowers by the roots, strip the borders and strew them with paper and broken bottles.” Even in The Wind in the Willows, you can see the playwright wrestling with the big theme he announced in the closing lines of Forty Years On:
To let. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary.
Several of the best jokes in The Wind in the Willows emerged in rehearsal. Most playwrights genuinely admire actors for their ability to take dialogue that looks heavy on the page and make it fly. Alan is one of the few who occasionally allows actors to write lines for him: if an idea works, he’ll take it. The converse is an absolute confidence about what matters. He and I rarely argue, partly because I know when it’s not worth arguing with him. He’ll leave me to cut a play if it’s too long: he’s not keen on putting a line through his own dialogue, even when he knows it’s necessary. But if I cut something he knows to be good he draws another kind of line, and the cut material goes back in.
I rarely know whether Alan is at work on a play until he pushes the first draft through my letter box. The Madness of George III arrived in the spring of 1991, when I was still one of Richard Eyre’s associate directors at the National. It was based on fact. In 1788, George III apparently went mad. The diaries of his doctors and courtiers describe his symptoms in startling detail. The prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, increasingly alarmed by the king’s incapacity, brought in a special “mad doctor” from Lincolnshire, one Dr. Willis, who reduced the king to meek acquiescence. The Prince of Wales, meanwhile, allied himself with the parliamentary opposition, who tried to push through a Regency bill. But in the spring of 1789, in the nick of time, the king seemed to come to his senses, so the Regency bill failed.
The play brings to life with forensic wit a forgotten constitutional crisis, but it was clear as I read it that it needed a titanic performance at its centre. In a huge stroke of luck, I’d just seen Nigel Hawthorne play the bereaved C. S. Lewis in Shadowlands. I’d always admired Nigel as a comic actor of consummate skill, as commanding on stage as he was in Yes, Minister, but I can’t remember ever being more surprised by grief in a theatre. The surprise must have been evident at dinner after the show, as Nigel couldn’t quite disguise how pissed off he was that I was so taken aback. He was fifty before he achieved the recognition he deserved, and he never quite forgave the rest of us for being so slow. Maybe I would have imagined him as the king who bullies his son, badgers his prime minister and shouts at his doctors, but if I hadn’t seen Shadowlands, I’d have had no idea how completely he would expose himself when the king descends into babbling incontinence.
The first draft, though often moving and funny, came and went. It was enormously long, and the parliamentary manoeuvring was exhausting. And it didn’t entirely justify the playwright’s insistence that it was about the madness of George III. It ended with a long, discursive scene in front of St. Paul’s where the king’s doctors squabbled about which of them was responsible for his recovery. They were joined by a doctor in modern dress: Dr. Richard Hunter, one of the two authors of the book that first suggested that the king was in fact suffering from porphyria, a physical illness that attacks the nervous system and has all the symptoms of madness. Then the politicians came on, then the king, all arguing about the king’s body and the body politic, until the king shut them all up and delivered the message:
The real lesson, if I may say so, is that what makes an illness perilous is celebrity. Or, as in my case, royalty . . . I tell you, dear people, if you’re poorly it’s safer to be poor and ordinary.
As we started to rehearse, it became clear that the scene, apart from being too long, was beside the point. Nigel’s performance was so powerful that the king’s suffering was enough in itself, and the celebration of his recovery was the only possible finale. Nigel started writing me letters on the train on his way to work: “I’m writing this for you to look at sometime during the day as I don’t want to take up more rehearsal time discussing THE END . . . How can the king, how can I as an actor after taking the audience through a highly emotional and naturalistic evening, play the scene Alan is expecting? It’s not a history lesson. People can read all that up for themselves!”
Alan’s endings often take time to emerge. Dr. Hunter soon morphed into Dr. Ida Macalpine, who made a brief appearance in the penultimate scene with her book to tell the king’s pages, and the audience, what was really wrong. Halfway through the run, Dr. Macalpine was herself shown the door. All that remained of her diagnosis was a programme note. The play ended with the king, and Nigel, triumphant, though Alan was fond enough of his original ending to include it wistfully in his introduction to the play when it was published.
Nigel demanded total engagement from everyone around him: he wanted his fellow actors to give as good as they got, and he wanted me to challenge him never to fall back on his matchless technique to conceal an absence of true feeling. He barely needed a monitor. I watched a performance every three or four weeks, less often than some directors watch their shows, and I’d often notice that Nigel had stopped doing something that always worked. “It was getting stale,” he’d say. “I wasn’t believing it anymore. Next time you come, I’ll have found it again.”
The play was a good deal more exercised by fact than most history plays, even in the scene, much the audience’s favourite, that Alan wrote in response to the concern that we weren’t making enough of the king’s recovery. Dr. Willis has allowed a reading of King Lear. “I’d no idea what it was about,” he says to the Lord Chancellor, Thurlow, who comes to visit just as they reach the reconciliation scene between Lear and Cordelia. The king dragoons Thurlow into playing Cordelia:
thurlow: O my dear father! Restoration hang Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss Repair those violent harms that my two sisters Have in thy reverence made.
king: Well, kiss me, man. Come on, come on. It’s Shakespeare. (Thurlow goes for the King’s hand.) No, no. Here, man. Here. (Gives him his cheek.) Push off now . . .
thurlow: Your Majesty seems more yourself.
king: Do I? Yes, I do. I have always been myself, even when I was ill. Only now I seem myself. That’s the important thing. I have remembered how to seem. What, what?
Several of the scene’s central conceits are true: George III loved Shakespeare, he identified with King Lear, and his courtiers knew he was on the mend when his verbal tics, particularly the “what, whats,” returned—they’d disappeared during his illness. Alan is fastidious about this kind of thing. He’s a historian by training, and he hates to depart from historical truth. Later, when we made the movie, it took weeks to persuade him to improve history a little and bring the king hurtling by coach from Kew to the doors of the Palace of Westminster in the nick of time, forestalling the Regency debate by a whisker.
“We need a chase, Alan, we need action.”
I’ve never stopped pressing the claims of narrative tension, urging Alan to channel more of what he wants to say into dramatic action. He has cooperated only up to a point, and he’s been right to resist. His plots are simple, almost non-existent, vehicles less for suspense than for the revelation of character: he exploits his audience’s trust to enlarge their sympathies.
A king falls ill, and gets better. Benjamin Britten visits W. H. Auden, but doesn’t ask him to write the libretto for Death in Venice. An old lady parks her van outside the playwright’s own north London house and stays for fourteen years, until one day she dies.
In The Lady in the Van, Maggie Smith launched Miss Shepherd from her yellow van like a grimy guided missile, and while the audience might not have wanted her as a house guest, in 1999 they couldn’t get enough of her as the main attraction. One of Alan’s most valuable gifts, not least to those who produce his plays, is his knack for creating whopping great parts that major actors want to play: there’s nothing that the wider theatre audience wants to see more. I tried often, sometimes successfully, to persuade emerging playwrights that they could do worse than to build what they want to say around a big part for a big actor. Nurtured in black boxes, where they need to talk to only a handful of aficionados for a few short weeks, the new playwrights have many more opportunities to have their plays produced than Alan’s generation. But they miss out on having to think about what it might be like with nine hundred people in the house, which is second nature to Alan, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, even Harold Pinter. Before the 1970s, when the small studio theatres started to proliferate, if you wanted your play done in London, you had to think about writing for the West End.
Now I’m home one evening in 2003, and I’ve just finished reading Hector’s Boys.
Eight stellar history pupils at a Sheffield grammar school prepare to take the Oxford and Cambridge entrance examinations. They’re all around eighteen, and they have three teachers. Mrs. Lintott favours “plainly stated and properly organised facts.” Irwin is a recent graduate for whom history is less a matter of conviction than performance: “The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back, or better still, the side.” Hector, whose subject is English Literature, teaches General Studies, eggs on the boys to perform scenes from 1940s movies and quotes Larkin, Auden and Housman: “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” He also gives them lifts home on the back of his motorbike, when he tries to reach behind for a quick squeeze. The groping is more pathetic than predatory (and once Richard Griffiths has agreed to play Hector it becomes an anatomical impossibility for him to be any kind of nuisance to his pillion passenger). But the headmaster’s wife claims to have spotted him one day “fiddling” outside the charity shop, and the headmaster seizes the opportunity to force him into early retirement. The most self-possessed of the boys, Dakin, is having a fling with the headmaster’s secretary, so he knows enough about the headmaster’s own indiscretions to be able to blackmail him into giving Hector his job back. All eight boys get into Oxbridge. Hector is killed in a motorbike accident.
I know the first draft is good, and I know it’s funny. I think that the government’s obsession with school league tables makes it pertinent, even urgent. Only three or four of the boys are in focus—most of them don’t even have names—and I can’t yet tell what Hector thinks or feels about much except literature and the purpose of education. I worry that the play may be a dazzling series of History and English lessons, of interest mainly to those who are turned on by the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the First World War poets.
“It’s terrific, but it’s esoteric,” I tell the planning meeting at the National the following Wednesday. “Seventy or eighty performances, max.”
Everybody prefers the alternative title, so when I see Alan, I persuade him to call it The History Boys. He’s genuinely unsure whether it’s any good. He tells me that the germ of the play was my own appearance on Michael Berkeley’s Radio 3 programme, Private Passions, an upmarket Desert Island Discs. One of my choices was Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched,” sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Alan hadn’t heard it in full before, and he was particularly taken with the lyrics:
I’ll sing to him
Each spring to him
And worship the trousers that cling to him,
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.
I once told Alan about my career as a boy treble at Manchester Grammar School, sometimes in the boys’ choir with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, never sure whether it was kosher to sing the liturgical repertoire. In one of those mysterious acts of association that writers are prone to, Alan imagined a Jewish boy with an unbroken treble voice singing “Bewitched” to another boy. And here is unhappy, gay, Jewish Posner singing “Bewitched” to the beautiful Dakin.
But he isn’t who I was: I didn’t sing out about what I wanted, and for a long time I looked for it only in books. E. M. Forster’s Maurice was published posthumously when I was fifteen. I hovered outside Willshaw’s bookshop in the centre of Manchester, then darted inside and bought it as furtively as if it had been Homo Hunks, from whom I’d have run in terror had I any idea they existed. I was thrilled by suburban Maurice’s surrender to Scudder the under-gamekeeper, presumably even rougher trade than Lady Chatterley’s gamekeeper, though it was hard to tell, as Forster, unlike D. H. Lawrence, didn’t give much away about what they got up to between the sheets. But though I was envious of Maurice, when at last I allowed myself off the leash long enough to be lured off the straight and narrow by boys less timid than me, I was covered in shame and confusion.
Still, Posner speaks to me. He’s on the wrong side of the pass door, beating at the reinforced glass to be let into the party. It’s an existential condition that Alan returns to again and again in his plays. “A sense of not sharing, of being out of it,” says Hector, later in the play. “A holding back. Not being in the swim.” And no matter how gregarious my job, this always cuts me to the quick. It’s why I love his work.
But I need to talk to Alan about Posner singing “Bewitched” to Dakin, because although it’s an outstanding scene, I have a problem with Posner’s unbroken voice.
“He’s eighteen. How can his voice not be broken?” I ask.
“My voice broke very late,” says Alan.
“How late?” I ask.
“Sixteen,” says Alan.
“Eighteen is another matter,” I say, “and in any case, how do we cast it? We’ll have to cast a thirteen-year-old, because that’s the only way we’ll find someone with an unbroken voice, and all the other boys will be professional actors in their early twenties, so it won’t make any sense.”
“It makes no sense that a woman burns her husband’s precious manuscript and then shoots herself in the head,” says Alan with an air of finality, and as this is the first time I’ve ever known him to compare himself to Ibsen, I decide to drop it.
I sometimes think that he deliberately buries clues in his first drafts. The director has to sniff out the good stuff, like a pig hunting truffles. “Whatever the state of Posner’s voice, how lonely is he? How unhappy? Why isn’t Hector more upset by losing his job? He seems to sail through the play without ever engaging emotionally with anyone else, or even himself. How good a teacher is he, or is he only a classroom entertainer?”
Alan stops me before I say too much: he never likes me to labour the point, and it’s always a good idea to leave him to go off in his own direction if he’s agreeing with the general drift.
“Any ideas about casting?” I ask.
“I thought about Frances de la Tour for Mrs. Lintott,” he says.
I can immediately hear her say every line, though I’ve barely met her. In fact, the only time she’s ever talked to me was at the National Theatre company meeting when I was introduced as the new direc- tor. Frankie, as I wouldn’t have dared to call her then, was in a play in the Cottesloe. She stood up and asked if she could say a few words. “I have no idea who you are,” she said, “but on behalf of the entire profession, welcome.”
At the same moment, Alan and I realise that Hector should be Richard Griffiths, who has the wit and grace to persuade an audience to forgive him for his fumbling interferences on the motorbike. Richard comes to see me in my office, and sits gloomily on the sofa.
“I can’t turn it down,” he says.
I wonder why he’s so unhappy about it.
“It’ll bankrupt me,” he says. “I can’t live off the kind of money this place pays.”
I assure him he’ll be on knights and dames rate, the National’s special top salary. But this is a fraction of what he gets in the movies, and much less than what any leading actor can earn in television, so it doesn’t cheer him up. An hour later, after several entertaining stories about the plays he’s been in and the pittance he’s been paid for them, he accepts the part and trudges miserably out of the office.
The headmaster is easy: Clive Merrison took over Dr. Willis in The Madness of George III and we know how well he can do humourless monomania. And we meet Stephen Campbell Moore who plays the young teacher Irwin with unexpected sympathy, and seems steely enough not to let Richard Griffiths’ Hector walk all over him.
A few weeks later, we read the second draft at the National The- atre Studio. Dominic Cooper has asked to play Dakin. “I think you may be too old, to be honest,” I say to him. He points out mildly that he’s playing a twelve-year-old in His Dark Materials, so he’s reading Dakin.
Other members of the cast of His Dark Materials join the class. Ben Whishaw is Scripps, Russell Tovey is Boy 2 (most of them are still nameless) and Samuel Barnett is Posner. “All the unbroken-voice actors are busy,” I lie to Alan.
The reading is patchy. I’m excited, because the second draft has some sensational things in it. There’s a new scene at the end of Act 1: just after Hector loses his job, he returns to the classroom to find Posner waiting for a private lesson. They read through a short poem by Thomas Hardy, “Drummer Hodge,” and in talking about it they seem to answer the questions I asked about them in the first draft. How does Hector feel about being fired? Devastated. How good a teacher is he? Superb. How lonely is Posner? Very. Why does Hector seem so emotionally distant? Because he’s even lonelier than Posner.
Alan is depressed, as he always is by a first reading, but I have a whiff of how it might be after a few weeks’ rehearsal. I start to think that seventy performances won’t be enough. I ask Alan what he thought of the actors playing the history boys, but warn him not to like Ben Whishaw too much as he’s got another job playing Hamlet. Alan likes Dominic, and he thinks Russell Tovey should be Rudge, the dull, sporty boy played very well at the reading by Jamie Parker, who has let slip that he plays the piano so we’ve moved him on to Scripps. Alan also likes Sam Barnett, but insists that as his voice is broken, he’s not suitable for Posner.
“But he sings like an angel!” I say. “And we can’t cast some twelve-year-old with an unbroken voice. It would look ridiculous.”
Alan asks the casting director, Toby Whale, to arrange auditions for some child actors with unbroken voices. “Or maybe it could be a woman who looks like an eighteen-year-old boy,” he offers, trying to help. Toby looks at his shoes.
“Tell Sam Barnett to sit tight,” I growl at him when Alan leaves. “Don’t let him accept another job.”
We need actors to play Boys 1, 2, 3 and 4, and to stamp them with enough individuality to provoke the playwright into finding names for them. Toby brings in a lot more actors in their early twenties and we keep telling Alan that the thirteen-year-olds are on their way. We particularly like two Mancunians, Andrew Knott and Sacha Dhawan. Andrew reminds me of the boys I was at school with. Sacha tells us he’s going to read a poem he’s written himself.
“Did this guy train?” I whisper to Toby. “Has nobody told him that’s a bad idea?”
“He’s not trained, and he actually is eighteen, so give him a break,” mutters Toby. The poem is rather good, and Sacha reads it with such conviction that we can’t imagine turning him down. Samuel Anderson is cool, which is a tone of voice we haven’t found yet, so we want him too.
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. “What have you done most recently?” I ask.
“A sitcom called Fat Friends,” he says, and cackles in delight, like the Wicked Witch of the West. He’s called James Corden, and we decide he’ll be great as Boy 4, who eventually gets a name—Timms—and a lot more lines, some of which he writes for himself.
“What about Posner?” asks Alan.
“We’ve run out of time. I’m casting Sam Barnett,” I say firmly. Alan says nothing.
A few months later, in his introduction to the published edition of the play, he concedes that as broken-voiced Posner, “the heir to the character I never quite wrote,” Sam Barnett is perfect.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Set-Up
1 National Identity 21
2 Imaginary Forces 38
3 A Really Good Time 55
Part 2 New Things
4 Ourselves and Each Other 77
5 A Way of Looking at Things 116
6 Knowing Nothing 139
Part 3 Old Things
7 A Reason to Do It 155
8 The Original Production 178
Staging the Classics
9 The Age and Body of the Time 199
Part 4 Show Business
10 On the Bandwagon 227
11 What They Best Like 244
11 One Night Only 266
Tacking Them In
Cast and Creatives 283