LONDON — When National Theater artistic director Nicholas Hytner first read Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” he was certain of two things: “There would be no film in it and no interest in America.”
With six Tony Awards and Hytner’s own screen version with the original London cast intact for Fox Searchlight scheduled for an October U.K. release, Hytner is understandably happy to have been proved wrong.
Hytner’s fifth collaboration with Bennett (after an adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Madness of King George” on stage and screen and the play “The Lady in the Van”) originally was scheduled in the National repertory for just 78 performances, including a week of previews.
“I was nervous that it might be thought to be too esoteric,” Hytner confessed. “But right from the start we wrote the possibility of an extension into the plan. Halfway through rehearsals we had a hunch that it was really going to work.”
Opening night on May 18, 2004, threatened to be a disaster. A fire alarm went off backstage and the National’s exceedingly efficient sprinkler system flooded the stage so curtain-up was delayed by an hour. Not that critical spirits were dampened. The production was roundly cheered, and both play and lead actor Richard Griffiths went on to dominate virtually every major U.K. theater award ceremony, with Hytner nabbing the Olivier Award for director.
An instant hit, the play continued in the repertoire for a year, becoming the most successful tour in the National’s history with total regional box office takings of more than £1 million ($1.8 million). (A second 11-city tour with a fresh cast starts Aug. 31 in Birmingham.)
Can Hytner pinpoint the reasons for the play’s overwhelming reception beyond the U.K.? “On international tour to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, and in the U.S., this play has always exceeded anybody’s expectations,” he told Daily Variety. “We were wary because we thought the local color was very local. But in my relatively short time as an impresario, I’ve realized there is nothing that appeals to large audiences more than people onstage that they care about. By the end you care about 12 people very much.
“It’s also very funny,” he added. “There’s barely a line that doesn’t sound as if it was worth saying or worth listening to; and its concerns turn out to be universally pertinent. It says something about the almost inexpressible worth of literature and the wider culture that strikes a chord with the theatergoing public.”
How different will Hytner’s film version be? “There are two specially written cameos for Penelope Wilton and Adrian Scarborough, and the flashes forward have gone,” he explained. “In conventional parlance, it hasn’t been opened out much. It’s about a closed world from beginning of term to the end.”
Sounds like a smart case of not messing with something that works.