Hytner hits National heights

Crix, colleagues praise helmer, who takes U.K. theater reins in '03

Barely had Nicholas Hytner been announced as the next artistic director of the Royal National Theater than industry and media folk alike were playing hail to the (new) chief.

“I’m glad, I’m very glad,” Peter Hall tells Variety. For 15 years Hall himself ran what is arguably English-speaking theater’s most important playhouse.

Referring to Hytner and Nick Starr, the one-time NT press officer and head of planning who is expected to follow Genista McIntosh as exec director, Hall says, “They’re a great duo.” (Starr’s appointment has not been made official, pending word from McIntosh as to when she will vacate the NT’s No. 2 spot.)

“Unlike Mr. (Trevor) Nunn,” wrote Antony Thorncroft in the Financial Times in an article headlined “Directing to a Different Tune,” Hytner “is an impressive communicator.” That, coupled with “a theatrical record” that, Thorncroft added, “is Hytner’s main asset,” should serve the National well starting in April 2003, when Hytner — at 45, 16 years younger than current a.d. Nunn — begins an initial five-year term.

Hytner’s annual salary has been pegged at about £120,000 ($175,000). As National a.d. — his first job running any cultural institution — Hytner as producer will have to fill close to 2,000 seats a night in three auditoria, overseeing a staff of 800 and some 20 productions a year.

He trumped a short list also comprising Howard Davies, Max Stafford-Clark, John Caird and Jude Kelly, the last held up as a potential dark horse and the lone woman in the group. In the end, an insider close to the process tells Variety, “The board unanimously but not easily felt Nick was the best candidate.”

Already, London theater itself is responding, with veteran monologuist Ken Campbell doing two perfs Sept. 28-29 at the ICA of his latest solo show, “If I Ruled the National Theater.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer was among those expressing regrets that neither Sam Mendes nor Stephen Daldry — both hot prospects for the job the last go-round — chose to put himself forward this time, due, no doubt, to thriving film careers. Hytner’s screen momentum, by contrast, has decelerated somewhat since beginning on a high in 1994 with “The Madness of King George,” based on an Alan Bennett play that Hytner first directed at the National.

With Mendes and Daldry “out of the race,” wrote Spencer, “there was no question that Hytner was the outstanding candidate.”

Commenting prior to last week’s announcement, Cameron Mackintosh, producer of “Miss Saigon,” the global musical smash that has been Hytner’s principal cash cow, spoke of the logic of Hytner’s accession. “Nick has been hugely successful in every role of the theater; therefore, this is the time in his life to decide to take on a new direction.”

Hytner’s appointment was made public Sept. 25 at a press conference hosted by Nunn, Hytner and Christopher Hogg, chairman of the National board. In deciding on a director schooled in theater, opera and film, the board ended a selection process that took five months, vs. the 3½-month search in 1996 when Nunn was — somewhat surprisingly — named Richard Eyre’s successor for what was touted as a five-year stint.

Nunn will end up having occupied the supremo slot some six months longer than that, his regime marked by numerous critical triumphs — “Oklahoma!,” “The Merchant of Venice” and his superlative “Summerfolk” among them — as well as some concern that his eye for new plays (“Remember This,” “The Walls,” “Battle Royal”) wasn’t as keen as his command of the classics, including musicals such as the hit “My Fair Lady.”

Hytner’s multiple talents have been on abundant view over time at the National, where he was one of several associate directors under Eyre between 1990 and 1997. His 1992 revival of “Carousel” — a subsequent Tony winner on Broadway — remains one of the NT’s banner achievements, while “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and current “Mother Clap’s Molly House” have shown an equal gift for new writing.

“Mother Clap” came hot on the heels of Hytner’s NT mounting of “The Winter’s Tale,” contrasting projects that Mark Ravenhill, author of “Mother Clap,” says constituted a smart and shrewd pairing for any putative a.d.

Following Shakespeare with such a large-scale, gay-themed premiere represents, says Ravenhill, “quite brave politicking” — a reminder from Hytner to the NT board that, Ravenhill continues, “if you want something new and to find new audiences, you need something that’s really going to make a noise.” The production has played to 75% capacity to date in the NT’s 900-seat Lyttelton.

At the press conference, Hytner spoke of his new home as “a magnet for everything that’s energetic, good, (and) fresh … (and) that is pushing forward theater as an art form.”

“I’m unaffectedly a fan of a lot of people and a lot of things,” he added, sounding keen to balance any perceived American bias (Hytner has a second home in Manhattan) with a nod toward the Continent. That could well mean more European directors at the National and fewer benchmark American musicals. “There aren’t that many classic American musicals left to revive, (so) I don’t foresee doing that,” he said.

His aim, too, will be “to avoid a weary sigh as we trawl through the canon once again. It’s hard to name an unarguably great play, particularly an English play, that hasn’t been done here once.” (Some, like “Hamlet” and “The Cherry Orchard,” seem to be staged at regular intervals.)

Prior to taking up residency on the South Bank, Hytner will be busy with “Sweet Smell of Success,” the Broadway musical that starts rehearsals Nov. 5 in New York prior to a tryout in Chicago. A Broadway transfer for his West End hit “The Lady in the Van,” starring Maggie Smith, also is a possibility for late 2002.

Nonetheless, Hytner said, “It’s time for me to get going … in making 2003 very exciting. I couldn’t be more excited, more thrilled, more honored by the opportunity given me here.”

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