South Bank Oberon

The memoir of the National Theatre's former artistic director is absorbing, insouciant and amusing

Anne McElvoy

“You start with a vision, and deliver a compromise,” muses Nick Hytner in his lively memoir of running the National Theatre for 12 mainly fecund years (Balancing Acts, Jonathan Cape, £20). In this case, the cause of compromise was Michael Gambon, who suffered a health scare in rehearsals for Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. Asked, as he was stretchered to hospital, whether he would like to deliver any message to his colleagues, Gambon whispered, “Don’t worry about those bastards: they’re already on the phone to Simon Russell Beale.”

Hytner’s recollections are full of such amusing directorial insights, as well as a mordant eye for the grind of an arts day job.  He is  at his best in the tiny details, like a stage manager’s dour précis reporting, “The gypsy was very late on as he was in the wrong place and couldn’t find his heather.”

It’s no surprise that he is leftish, which means that political theatre at the National under his tenure, while often excellent in quality (This House and Stuff Happens), was overall incurious. The only good Tory was Harold Macmillan (therefore dead). Meeting a donor, he grouses that she is “an admirer is of President Bush” and the smack of disapproval is worthy of Lady Bracknell.

He is, however, unafraid to criticise the mechanistic New Labour tilt of government policy towards “reviewing the audience”, that is to say, relentless fussing about what kind of folk are attending cultural institutions as the sole measure of what they are good or bad at.
The success of War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors justifies his claim that the best theatre is a balancing act between mammon and inspiration.

Almost everyone of seniority in theatre is deemed marvellous, which sits oddly with his forthright view of some productions not being as good as he hoped. He clearly feels, for instance, that he got the “wrong” play on climate change — the National’s Greenland was awful and outshone by Richard Bean’s more thought-provoking offer, The Heretic, at the Royal Court.

Hytner has produced a rare thing: an absorbing memoir by a director-turned-arts-administrator. Some of the best moments are self-critical, like a failed film version of The Crucible: “I was too anxious to prove my cinematic credentials with stampedes into the ocean and other unnecessary hyperactivity.”

The insouciance of Balancing Acts is magic dust, sprinkled by a master Oberon. Hytner is thick-skinned, self-motivated and, in the spirit of Gambon’s savvy quip, already on the phone to the next ripe talent.

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