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Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre Hardcover – 27 Apr 2017
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"A tremendous book about life in the theatre ― and theatre, and life. Honest, shrewd and heartfelt. A classic of its kind." (William Boyd)
"Witty, waspish, and extraordinarily wise, it comes as no surprise to discover that Nick Hytner is every bit as good a writer as he is a director. Part fascinating memoir, part brilliant guidebook, Balancing Acts is also a record of how one man challenged and changed the way theatre is perceived in the UK, and with a few brilliant strokes – £10 tickets, live cinema broadcasts, and a dazzlingly inventive and brilliant repertory – created the first great theatre of the twenty-first century. For his description of what went into that quiet revolution, and for many other reasons, this wonderful book is essential reading." (Sam Mendes)
"As the record of a great theatre dealing fully and richly with the past and finding new ways of holding a glass up to the present, it’s incomparably interesting... This book is immensely readable, full of vivid anecdotes, and rich with an intimate understanding of drama both classic and modern. I loved it, and I’m sure it will do very well." (Philip Pullman)
"Nicholas Hytner gives a riveting account of his time at the National Theatre. “Nothing makes me happier” he writes “than to throw a party and sit on the edge of it.” It was a party, often a triumphant one, but he was at the heart of it. As was someone else: Shakespeare, about whom he writes superbly. Speaking for myself I’ve never had so much fun as working with Nicholas Hytner. This lovely book explains why." (Alan Bennett)
"Witty and entertaining, [Hytner] has an ability to be serious without being portentous, and he’s able to tell a good story … Balancing Acts is both history and illumination … You don’t have to be interested in theatre or even in culture to enjoy this book … But if you do happen to be interested in one of the few organisations in Britain that actually achieves what it’s supposed to … then you’ll be delighted. What’s more, in the account of Hytner’s directing at least six Shakespeare plays … you’ll find yourself given a masterclass." (Richard Eyre Evening Standard)
"[Balancing Acts] shows that [Hytner] can write extremely well. It is fuelled by the same clarity and intellectual pizzazz that are the hallmarks of his productions… It shows so many of Hytner’s virtues: his unfashionable appreciation of the intelligence of actors, his boundless fascination with Shakespeare, his belief in the magical power of theatre… It’s a wonderful book: stimulating, intelligent, gossipy, heartfelt, affectionate, honest and, perhaps above all, fun." (Craig Brown Mail on Sunday)
"Vivid, engaging, alive with anecdotes and continually invigorated by ideas." (John Carey Sunday Times)
"Hytner digs up plenty of absorbing material, reminding us that running a major arts organisation is a high-wire performance that features the continual risk of career-ending injury… It should be read not simply by anyone who has an interest in British theatre, but anyone interested in that oldest of questions: how you make art that sells... Engagingly open... astute and unsentimental... His insights on Shakespeare and Bennett are worth the price of the book alone." (Andrew Dickson Guardian)
"The book is what you might describe as a safe space for those who maintain, as I do, a deep-seated fear of theatrical memoirs … For one thing, there is his modesty … For another, there is his willingness, when necessary, to send up the theatre. … Balancing Acts reminds the reader, almost inadvertently, of the astonishing success the National Theatre enjoyed during the period he ran it … His book isn’t gossipy, but it is revealing." (Rachel Cooke Observer)
"Revelatory … full of anecdotes about the terrifying art of bringing a play alive, and full of insight about the sheer daredevil tightrope act that running the National Theatre involves … A vital reminder both of what theatre can do – and what is at stake if we take it for granted." (Sarah Crompton What’s On Stage)
About the Author
Nicholas Hytner was director of the National Theatre from 2003 to 2015, where he directed plays by – among many others – Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Alan Bennett and Richard Bean and produced more than two hundred different shows. He brought in a new community of artists, introduced National Theatre Live cinema broadcasts around the world, and established £10 ticket seasons which – by radically reducing ticket prices – filled the National with large new audiences. Before running the National, he worked widely in the West End and on Broadway; and in opera – in London, Paris, Munich and New York. His films include The Madness of King George, The History Boys, The Lady in the Van, and The Crucible with Daniel Day-Lewis. The Bridge Theatre, the London home of the new company he has formed with Nick Starr, opens in 2017.
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He writes frankly about his mistakes, but also, of course, about his successes, as a Director, and about his ideas of bringing bigger audiences to the National, by widening the repertoire, by introducing more affordable £10 tickets, by live broadcasts of some performances to cinemas (the first one in 2009 to 72 cinemas in the UK, and then to 120 cinemas in the rest of the world; two years later the number of screens had risen to 1,500 and the audience was over 600,000), and by commissioning topical plays such as, for example, those by David Hare: “Stuff Happens” (about the Iraq War) and “The Power of Yes” (about the 2008 financial crisis). There were many other plays staged by the National which dealt with controversial subjects like immigration, religious intolerance, homosexuality, or with straight politics like the manoeuvres in coalition governments or the phone-hacking scandal. Hytner leaves us in no doubt about his own political views.
At first I thought the book was one strictly for theatre buffs, for people who knew not only something about the famous plays of past and present, but also about lesser-known plays; who were interested not only in stories about famous actors, but also in the many named but unsung individuals who are involved in the business side of the theatre: executive directors, assistant directors, finance directors, heads of casting, set designers, heads of Voice, press officers, and many others. We learn a lot about the problems of finding plays for and filling the three component parts of the National Theatre - the 300-seat Cottesloe, the 900-seat Lyttleton, and the 1,150-seat Olivier; and about theatre finances.
I am not such a theatre buff; but I found many great passages in which he discusses particular plays. For me, one highlight in the book is what he wrote about his first play after he had been appointed Director: Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. Just after they went into rehearsal, the 2003 Iraq War began, and there are fascinating pages about the relevance of the play to that situation, quite different from the relevance it had had at the time of Olivier’s film in 1944.
Another highlight is the long chapter of Hytner’s work on “The Madness of King George” and on “The History Boys” with Alan Bennett and with the casts. And, although this is a book about his work in the theatre, he also puts in a chapter about what it was like to direct films about these two plays (and about Bennett’s “The Lady in the Van”). He discusses the difference between directing a film and directing a play. He briefly thought he might prefer making movies than directing plays; but he came to realize that, after all, he preferred the chemistry of the direct contact with a responsive audience.
He is at his best, I think, when he gives us his take on several of Shakespeare’s plays, and tells us how great actors interpreted their roles. Directors and actors have to think about the things that Shakespeare does NOT tell us about and leaves to our imagination. There are rewarding passages about the “Henry IV” plays, a fine analysis of aspects of “Hamlet” and there are particularly ingenious and totally untraditional insights into Ophelia’s death and into Polonius, too. There are fine pages in which Hytner tells us how the actors Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear saw Othello and Iago. (Hytner and Lester agreed that the fact that Othello is black is not – and was not regarded by Shakespeare – as being central to the story, certainly less central than Shylock’s Jewishness was to “The Merchant of Venice”.)
Hytner writes about other plays as well. For example, he was won round to Bernard Shaw and writes interestingly about him. He describes the work that went into the memorable “War Horse” and into “Frankenstein”. Every now and then he has to lighten the repertoire with a comedy that will have to audience “helpless with laughter”. One such he describes was “One Man, Two Guvnors” with James Corden in the lead. There is also a chapter about the musicals he has directed: the phenomenally successful “Miss Saigon” (not at the National Theatre), “Carousel” and, on Broadway, “Sweet Smell of Success”.
I found Hytner’s style rather uneven: sometimes a little heavy going; at other times, especially when I did not know the plays he is discussing, he is too allusive for me; but most of the time his book was a real pleasure to read.
The book reads like the list of floats in a carnival procession of the famous of British theatrical nobility. Simon Russell Beale, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Roger Allam, Tom Stoppard, Dominic Cooper, Frances De La Tour, are all part of a much longer line. Some like Alan Bennet, feature extensively, while others, like Danny Boyle and Benedict Cumberbatch, in a fascinating cameo of the former casting the latter in Frankenstein, pass through fleetingly.
The book is at its most successful where it goes into more depth and detail of particular productions, Henry V, War Horse or His Dark Materials. At times however it felt as a little dissatisfying as he skated over the top of productions about which wanted to know more. Perhaps, however, that is a realistic picture of the life of someone in this role.
So, for anybody interested in the theatre this is definitely a book which is to be highly recommended. However for all it gives a revealing and immersive account of how a modern flagship theatre works, I found I could never quite warm to Hytner. For all he is self deprecating, for example in describing his dark moods and tantrums when His Dark Materials appeared to be close to catastrophe, there is a definite tone of self justification running through the book. I frequently thought I could detect the author answering off-stage critics. There is also a danger in all theatrical memoirs, encapsulated in a review I read which described Hytner as "waspish", that wit can tip over into bitchiness.
So, read this to learn of the fractured job of heading a national institution. Turn to Anthony Sher for a more satisfying theatrical autobiography.
Hopefully, he will revert to the more gossipy, anecdotal style of the beginning of the book towards the end which I will find more interesting. It would also have been interesting to have had more (any) information about his family background, youth and upbringing although I realise that this is not an autobiography but rather an account of his time at the NT, although having said that, he does discuss making films in America so he does go beyond the NT at times.
The narrative doesn't soar tho' it does come alive when the author writes about Alan Bennett and his idosyncratic reactions and views concerning his own play's in production, and anecdotes to do with other productions in general.There are relatively few of those.The result was a book once started was not abandoned in the hope that it would take flight again.it isn't boring but nor is it compelling.It's a
workshop:good and for my money anyway flat in parts.I returned to it dutifully rather than joyfully.It provides insight into the National theatre, the hopes, frustrations and successes that is it's makeup.
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