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This director finds a way

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Nicholas Hytner has grown the National Theatre's audience without sacrificing art.

October 05, 2011|CHARLES McNULTY | THEATER CRITIC

A name keeps cropping up in theater circles these days: Nicholas Hytner. His job as director of Britain's National Theatre is an important one, but Americans are talking about him for another reason: He's creating as big a splash in the U.S. as he is in London.

Since Hytner took over in 2003, the National has been firing on all cylinders, producing transatlantic hits ("The History Boy," "War Horse"), spearheading the global broadcast initiative known as National Theatre Live (NT Live, for short), maintaining a diverse repertoire of new and classic work that ranges freely from the populist to the highbrow, and changing audience demographics through a cheap ticket program known as Travelex.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 06, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Nicholas Hytner: An Oct. 5 Calendar section article about Nicholas Hytner, director of Britain's National Theatre, referred to the play "The History Boys" as "The History Boy."

Hytner's production of "One Man, Two Guvnors," based on a classic Italian farce that's been given a kind of Benny Hill makeover by playwright Richard Bean, is a smash in London and appears headed for Broadway. Some people may have seen the NT Live broadcast, which still has encore dates in the region. Hilarious. "War Horse," the National's runaway hit that won the Tony for best play this year, arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre in June.

Oh, and Hytner just so happens to have given the L.A. Opera a boost with his production of "Cosi fan Tutte," which Times music critic Mark Swed called "sexy" and "red-blooded." It's worth checking out, if only to see the power of opera when it is acted with as much farcical nuance as vocal gusto.

"Hytner has led the NT through its most stable and creative period since it was set up in a row of temporary, tin-roofed sheds near the Old Vic," wrote Andrew Dickson in the Guardian last year.

Theater observers on this side of the pond have been just as complimentary. New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel recently noted that "Under the leadership of Nicholas Hytner, the National's minting hits the way David Merrick did back in the '60s." And Time Out New York theater editor David Cote, writing on the Guardian's theater blog, wondered whether any artistic directors in the U.S. can "hold a candle to the current boss of the National?"

There is no American equivalent to the National. The Public Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, Lincoln Center Theater, Arena Stage, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Guthrie Theater, Center Theatre Group and Berkeley Rep are all powerhouses in their different ways, but none commands the same cultural centrality. It's no coincidence that these institutions also aren't the beneficiaries of the kind of governmental arts funding the National enjoys even during times of slash-and-burn austerity.

But these advantages don't entirely account for Hytner's galvanizing leadership. What he has been singularly adept at accomplishing -- and what deserves to be studied more closely by artistic leaders here -- is the way he has allied institutional expansion with artistic development. The core mission of the National hasn't been compromised by its growth. "Branding" has clearly been part of the business plan, but the integrity of the product -- the art -- hasn't been forgotten.

When NT Live was first announced, I was rather dubious. Filmed theater is a bit like eating canned vegetables -- all the freshness and many of the nutrients gone. But then I saw Alan Bennett's "The Habit of Art" and the giddy revival of Dion Boucicault's "London Assurance" and was converted. The broadcasts aren't a replacement for the live event but a supplementary offering to an increasingly interconnected theatrical world.

Both plays, staged with crackling elan by Hytner, are purely theatrical organisms. Neither is of the species of drama, so common on our stages, that would lose little in the transfer to a television screen. That both broadcasts worked so well is a credit not just to the adroit camera work but to the way every aspect of the presentation strives to give viewers an approximation of the theatergoing experience.

The embrace of NT Live is indicated by the announcement that the program, now in its third season, has expanded its U.S. market by more than 200 movie theaters. Broadway has been testing the high-def waters ("Memphis" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" have already had movie house showings), but let's be grateful to the National Theatre for having established a precedent that goes beyond big musicals and familiar titles. Cheap box office bait hasn't been NT Live's method, yet audiences have shown up nevertheless.

Nothing raises revolutionary hackles more than praising an Englishman at the expense of his American counterparts. But U.S. nonprofit theater leaders who have been lured down the primrose path of commercial production can profit from Hytner's example.

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