Hosted by Gordon Burns
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Nick Hytner says he embarked on his tenure at the National Theatre without a long-term strategy. In fact, he says, he never planned on staying this long anyway. We can only be grateful that he has. He’s overseen one of the fastest moving periods in the National’s history, shaping the way this cornerstone of British theatre has, perhaps against all the odds, stayed up to date. Not only that, but Hytner has taken the ‘national’ bit far more seriously than any of his predecessors, taking any criticism of London-centricity by the horns and literally beaming theatre out to all corners of the earth. So, as what will be twelve years in charge draws to a close, it’s good to hear Hytner’s thoughts on how he feels he’s leaving things for incomer Rufus Norris, and what his own plans for the future are.
Gordon Burns, introducing Hytner, calls him Mancunian through and through, but it’s not entirely true. Although Hytner recognises his start in the city as having had some impact on his starry theatrical career, he also remembers a city that was dilapidated and down on its luck. When he left, he says, he had no intention of coming back. He recognises that he grew up in a city where incredible people were doing extraordinary things in the worlds of theatre and music, he name checks some inspirational teachers, but he firmly pins his inspiration on his parents, who were motivated enough to make sure Nick and his brothers got a good grounding in culture in addition to a solid education and Saturdays at Old Trafford.
But now he’s back – and he makes an obvious but important point – that Manchester and Salford are unrecognisable to the city he left in the mid 1970s. Nowhere could look more different than where we’re sitting listening to Hytner and Salford girl and Lowry Chief Executive Julia Fawcett, who has even better local credentials, growing up right on the edge Salford Quays – or, as it was at the time, the Manchester Docks. Fawcett is clearly very proud to be running an institution which not only attracts box-office hits like War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors and The History Boys, but which also reaches out to the very communities she grew up in through its excellent learning programmes. Hytner singles out the North West as a hotbed of culture, something not all regions are lucky enough to be. “There are parts of the UK”, he says. “that haven’t been given the opportunity to keep up, meaning that audience’s horizons narrow”. Manchester’s taste for the new, he says, and an on-going commitment to culture from those who govern, have made the city what it is today.
Fawcett calls the National Theatre and other major national partnerships “the golden thread” of the Lowry’s programme. She’s not afraid to admit that the commercial success of shows like War Horse, which has generated £8.9m in ticket sales and other revenue, enables the theatre to offer a wide range of less commercial work, which she says “is no less important”. It’s this successful balance of commercialism and great art that will be Hytner’s legacy. As he and Executive Director Nick Starr take their winning combination of skills off into the world of commercial theatre production in 2015, they leave the National at the top of its game. Hytner has been a thorn in Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s side – after all, it should be in the job description – fighting not only for the National but for the entire sector, but, with Starr, he’s also proved that with a good balance of cultural brilliance and business acumen it’s possible to create a cultural powerhouse that can more than weather any public funding storm. “You can’t put a price on culture” says Hytner, “but what I do know is that what it offers in terms of value – in expressing a sense of ourselves – the government are getting it pretty cheap”.