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National touts treasure

2004-05 season attendance figures a record high

LONDON — The National Theater has announced another record year, with attendance across the 2004-05 season averaging 94% over 19 productions. The figure was up 3% from the already high previous season average, generating an operating surplus in excess of $1.2 million.

The figures covered the financial year through April 3, a period boosted by two B.O. winners: the encore engagement of “His Dark Materials” and the prolonged run of Alan Bennett’s Broadway-bound “The History Boys,” one of the most successful plays in NT history.

“We did as well as it’s ever possible to do,” says National artistic director Nicholas Hytner. “We had the kind of year we won’t have again financially.”

The sustained appeal of both “History Boys” and “Dark Materials” meant fewer new productions and an artistic-program spend of £1 million ($1.82 million) less than the previous year.

That money is back in place for the current financial year, which already is beginning to look more like business as usual. Although the National budgets to 75% capacity across all three theaters throughout the year, recent Lyttelton productions of “Theater of Blood” and Brian Friel’s “Aristocrats” have underperformed, playing to 65% and 60%, respectively.

The 2004-05 season saw two plays by black British writers (Roy Williams’ “Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads” and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Fix Up”); Lauren Ambrose and M. Emmet Walsh in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child”; and a revelatory production from Katie Mitchell of Strindberg’s difficult “A Dream Play.” That last staging averaged an impressive 90% in the Cottesloe.

The great innovation of Hytner’s regime to date has been the introduction of the £10 Travelex Season for seven months in the Olivier. During that time, two-thirds of tickets in the National’s largest venue are sold for about $18, less than the price of a firstrun movie ticket in London’s West End.

Average attendance during summer 2004’s Travelex lineup was 94%. This year’s Travelex season has been averaging 93% to date — with one of the four shows, David Edgar’s “Playing With Fire,” yet to open.

Among the NT’s current lineup, the theater has a gold-plated hit in Mike Leigh’s “Two Thousand Years,” which went clean for its entire run well before the Sept. 15 opening. That play, says Hytner, could continue in the repertory well into 2006, though much would depend on the crix’ reactions. There are no commercial transfer plans.

Controversy is building, too, around the latest Howard Brenton play, “Paul,” a portrait of the religious thinker that opens Oct. 6 in the Cottesloe. The National brochure promises an “irreverent, provocative new play from the author of ‘The Romans in Britain’ ” — the 1980 drama whose depiction of homosexual rape made it a cause celebre at the time.

But Hytner cautions against judging “Paul” prematurely. “It’s a totally serious play about the nature of faith; it isn’t programmed to be controversial.”

For a theater that has of late sent four productions to Broadway (“Jumpers,” “Democracy,” “The Pillowman,” “Primo”), Hytner may be reversing the traffic. He is talking with George C. Wolfe about directing a U.K. premiere at the National of the Tony-nommed tuner “Caroline, or Change”; production, if it happens, would mark Wolfe’s NT debut.

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