“It’s going to be a bumper year,” says Nicholas Hytner, the usually circumspect a.d. of the National Theater.
Hytner’s confidence is buoyed by the theater’s extremely healthy 2006-07 annual report, which boasts its highest ever revenues of £46 million ($94 million) over 24 productions that won 27 international awards.
Budgeted to break even, the NT’s financial result was actually $2 million better than hoped, a position underpinned by income from “The History Boys,” growth in fund-raising revenue and the success of touring both nationally and internationally.
Over the year, 1.3 million people saw NT productions, thanks in no small part to the Travelex sponsorship — now entering its sixth year — which means that two-thirds of the seats for many of the largest productions cost just $20.
Hytner’s prognosis for the theater’s future health is based on a wealth of commissions and projected productions for 2008 and beyond. These include previously announced projects as diverse as Ralph Fiennes in Sophocles’ “Oedipus,” directed by Jonathan Kent, and a collaboration between hot U.K. choreographer Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche.
Future work will also include new plays from David Hare and Michael Frayn, neither of which Hytner is yet willing to discuss in detail. Although Frayn’s play has been delivered, Hare is still at work, so content and dates are to be announced. In the meantime, Hare’s production of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” starring Vanessa Redgrave, will also play a National engagement.
Next year will see the return of helmer Melly Still. Her NT debut, “Coram Boy,” sank on Broadway, but its second extended local run over Christmas and New Year’s played 98% capacity. Still will helm the bloodthirsty Jacobean drama “The Revenger’s Tragedy.”
Her leading actor will be the NT’s newest homegrown star, Rory Kinnear, who lit up Hytner’s production of “The Man of Mode” and Howard Davies‘ “Philistines.” Kinnear is on such a roll there that a future production of “Hamlet” is being planned around him. He will follow rival main Danes from David Tennant for helmer Gregory Doran at the RSC in 2008 and Jude Law for Kenneth Branagh in the Donmar’s 2009 West End season.
So impressed was Hytner by “Saint Joan,” helmed by NT associate director Marianne Elliott, that he has rethought his position on George Bernard Shaw as “a windbag.” Next year, he will direct a large-scale revival of “Major Barbara.”
Elliott, meanwhile, will direct the new play from Olivier-winner Simon Stephens, and she will rejoin playwright Samuel Adamson to rework Ibsen’s late tragedy “Little Eyolf.” Riding high in London on the back of “All About My Mother” at the Old Vic, Adamson also is working on an NT commission of a musical-theater adaptation of George MacDonald’s fairy tale “The Light Princess” with composer Tori Amos.
Another juicy future prospect is a recently commissioned musical by Grant Olding, whose “Three Sides” made the honors list twice at the recent New York Musical Theater Festival. Olding will write book, music and lyrics for the work, focusing on relationships in contemporary London. Also on the back burner is the NT’s ongoing commission for a musical from Blur front-man Damon Albarn.
Across the river at English National Opera, another potential U.K. musical-theater powerhouse, things are less rosy. The company has just opened its autumn season with a dismayingly tepid production of “Carmen,” directed — I use the term loosely — by opera-novice Sally Potter.
There’s nothing wrong with ushering moviemakers into the opera-director’s chair. Anthony Minghella‘s enthralling “Madama Butterfly” was a hit both here and at the Met. But Minghella was a playwright and stage director before he went near a movie camera. Potter’s program bio blithely mentions that her work has “embraced theater” while failing to list any actual theater credits.
Her tension-free production, awash with extraneous video and tango dancers pulling focus from the (in)action, squanders the talents of a potentially strong cast and an orchestra in top form under the galvanizing baton of new music director Edward Gardner.
Unlike what’s happening under Hytner’s National Theater stewardship, this production raises concerns about the already criticized artistic directorship of this immensely important company.