BALANCING ACTS, 5Star*****, Book

Balancing Acts
By Nicholas Hytner

Jonathan Cape £20

Review: William Russell, 12 May 2017

This is a really good read.

This account of his twelve years presiding over the National Theatre makes fascinating reading. It is not one of those gossip fuelled show biz memoirs although there are some good stories worth telling and pretty well everyone involved gets a name check. The result is immensely readable and offers lots of insights into staging Shakespeare, getting to grips with Shaw and coping with all sorts of temperaments and watching the costs. The juiciest tale comes early on when he is told that Security – who seem to have eyes everywhere – have found a famous actor up to no good in the underground car park with an autograph hunter. When he goes to share the news he finds, as he finds time and again over the years, that he is the last to know. As to which famous actor, he does not say, but there is no shortage of candidates, although if it was one of the regular autograph hunters who turn up at first nights he cannot have been too choosy.

One regret is that in his twelve years there he never found a place for Maggie Smith, although they had worked together several times, notably in Lady in the Van, one of his many collaborations with Alan Bennett, although that was in the West End, not the National. He tells a lovely story of how he and the Dame went to lunch with Sir John Gielgud – she was about to play Lady Bracknell in Hytner’s production of the play – to find the great man still fuming at the way Edith Evans had commandeered the role in his production of the play. For Gielgud Jack Worthing was the leading role and Dame Edith had hi-jacked it so successfully that it was she was the audiences came to see.

As for Dame Maggie, the Hytner production was not among his most successful, he recalls how she coped with the handbag line immortalised by Dame Edith and seen as something her successors had to cope with uttering. Shesimply mouthed the word, moved on to the next line about it being left in Victoria Station and got the laugh on “The line is immaterial.”

He says that one of a director’s jobs is to create a stage world where dialogue written in the high style seems inevitable and spontaneous. Alan Bennett’s world is easy enough, but that of Restoration comedy demands much more. Sometimes he achieved it, sometimes so did the actors, but not always. Interestingly when people complained about audibility, and they sometimes have cause to do so contrasting it with great names of the past, he looked up the archives and there were letters of complaint to Olivier at the Old Vic about the audibility of the very actors the writers remembered with such admiration.
It is a world of ambition, of compromise, of discovering actors – he is fascinating on the horror of auditions – and while commanding the ship finding oneself locked out and with a pass key refusing to work. Lost in the labyrinthine building he smashed in a security door – only to find later that Security had that on tape too. On Shakespeare he is absolutely fascinating to read – how he tackled Othello, for instance, or Henry V. On how Michael Gambon fell victim to the actor’s curse of not being able to remember lines – they had to get Richard Griffiths to take over in Bennett’s The Habit of Art. Griffiths who seemed to like to talk a lot arrived late for rehearsal having been stuck in traffic. Bennett, at the back of the room, says – “Start rehearsing as soon as he arrives or we will be here all morning with Traffic Jams I have known.”
The hits, the misses, the productions he remembers but you have forgotten, the careers he has furthered are all there. It is one of those books you start and cannot put down. By the time you have finished you have learned a lot about just how difficult it is to run the national theatre successfully. As to Hytner the private person, you do not learn much, but if there are scant details about where his private life you learn all you need about the man who runs theatres and directs plays.

2017-05-14 15:05:59

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