Even by his standards — and they’re high — Nicholas Hytner was in seriously ebullient form at last week’s National Theater press conference. Sizing up the U.K. theater economy, he contrasted it with the country’s movie business.
While applauding Britain’s notable body of talent for producing “three or four excellent British films a year,” he criticized an infrastructure not able to put forth films with enough regularity to create a flourishing industry. “Theater regularly gets out the work, assumes an audience for it and is rewarded with it.”
Hytner backed up his assertion with a 2008-09 lineup he called “the most ambitious since I became the National’s director in 2003.”
The building’s three theaters will be producing fewer revivals of classics and more new plays — 12 in 12 months — from both established and rising talents.
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Four plays from the senior generation of British dramatists kick off in March with Jeremy Irons making his NT debut in “Never So Good” by Howard Brenton. Irons plays Harold Macmillan, the Conservative politician and prime minister from 1957-63, in a drama about the personal and political compromises made by those in power.
In April, Tony Harrison, one of the hardiest of British poets and playwrights, will team up with Bob Crowley to direct Harrison’s own “Fram,” about 19th century Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.
Two months later, Michael Blakemore, who first directed at the NT in its former home at the Old Vic in 1969, will continue his long association with Michael Frayn, directing his new play “Afterlife.” It explores the life of Austrian impresario Max Reinhardt, possibly most famous in the U.S. for filming “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1935 with Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck.
The last of the big hitters is David Hare, whose “Gethsemane” will preem early in 2009. Hytner remains tight-lipped as to Hare’s subject matter. Its helmer, though, is NT associate Howard Davies, who previously directed premieres of Hare’s “The Secret Rapture,” “The Breath of Life” and “My Zinc Bed.”
Meanwhile, as Hare is staging the transfer of Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion‘s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Davies will be busy with another new play. “Her Naked Skin,” set amid the suffragette movement, is not only the first play in the Olivier from Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who had a 2004 hit in the smaller Cottesloe with the emotionally eloquent “The Night Season”), it’s the first commissioned play in that theater to be penned by a woman.
The National’s considerably more impressive track record with female directors will continue with Marianne Elliott helming Simon Stephens‘ new “Harper Regan” and Samuel Adamson‘s “Mrs. Affleck,” an adaptation of Ibsen’s “Little Eyolf.” Melly Still, meanwhile, will follow up “Coram Boy” by directing Rory Kinnear in the Jacobean classic “The Revenger’s Tragedy.”
Other National Theater stalwarts include Katie Mitchell re-teaming with shooting star Ben Whishaw for a production based on Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and, in 2009, Deborah Warner directing Fiona Shaw in “Mother Courage.”
Nontraditional theater is also on tap. U.K. dance sensation Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche will co-direct and perform an as-yet-untitled work in September. A month later, Lloyd Newson and his company DV8 will use documentary interviews, dance, text, animation and film in “To Be Straight With You,” examining intolerance, religion and sexuality.
The ambition of that program — and it’s only the highlights of a year that also sees a rare revival of Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn’s “Every Good Boy Derves Favour” for actors and full orchestra — can only be achieved through Arts Council subsidy.
Hytner’s theater is one of the 75% of arts organizations in line to receive an above-inflation funding uplift of 2.7%. The U.K. press is awash with anger about the funding crisis facing the other 25% of Arts Council clients. As Hytner pointed out, if the appeals lodged this week by the companies under threat prove successful, orgs like his could find themselves in the absurd position of facing a cut after all.
Hytner upheld the right of a funding body to make cuts to encourage the growth of new companies, but had no hesitation in deploring the incoherence and lack of peer assessment in the adjudication process, labeling the situation “a terrible mess.”
He criticized the devolvement of handing off decision-making to smaller regional offices.
“Cuts were made separately with widely differing sets of criteria,” explained the National a.d. “From the organization that says funding is all about strategy, this is a strategic catastrophe.”