Nicholas Hytner’s Othello was so good I saw it twice. It’s not the first time Sir Nick has wowed the critics. And I somehow doubt it will be the last as I wait outside his office, fallen into an appropriately gelatinous state to accompany the close English summer heat. I perch comfortably, staring at black-and-white action shots of hit after hit: Adrian Lester in Henry V, Simon Russell Beale in Much Ado About Nothing, James Corden in One Man, Two Guv’nors. If there’s such thing as a grammar of theatre, Hytner is fluent in it.
These days, he needs little introduction: the Cambridge alumnus who arrived at the National Theatre in 1990 via the English National Opera, the Leeds Playhouse and the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester has become one of Britain’s most well-respected directors. One bookshelf in his office hosts a glass poster for One Man, Two Guv’nors; another holds mugs commemorating the first night of each Shakespeare play he’s directed. The Othello mug sits atop an unfingered script on the glass coffee table that separates us.
“None of these texts exists in isolation,” Hytner says, as if he’s noticed me looking at the mugs that sit side by side on the shelf. I’d wanted to know how a director avoids falling into the traps set by a Shakespeare text. “You kind of take its temperature;” he tells me, “every time you put them on, probably every time you read them, the temperature will change.” He doesn’t speak as though he were authority addressing error. No – he seems to embrace multiplicity, ambiguity, ambivalence. Indeed, Hytner is well known for his modern adaptations (Othello takes place at a military base that recalls recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), and that fact seems to underpin much of his philosophy: “what it says about our world is as much to do with our world as it is to do with the text.”
The air conditioning shuts off. Hytner apologises, gets up, fiddles with the machine. I realise that it’s the first time I’ve looked outside since I entered the room. It’s late afternoon; the view must be one of the best in London. The last sunbeams dance on buildings that spear the sky – Blackfriars Bridge, St Paul’s, the Gherkin beyond – each mingling with each. It feels as though the current of the Thames is driving daylight away, pushing it inch by inch towards the margins of evening. It’s not long before he returns to his seat, clears his throat, and resumes: “If you’re performing Shakespeare, you’re only ever going to take a snapshot of it. There’s always next time.”
It’s difficult not to be drawn in by the wonderful mildness of Hytner’s voice, and the diagonal smile that flashes across his face whenever he stumbles upon the mot juste. He seldom responds without emotion: “Oh God – no, I don’t know about that,” he counters when I ask which Shakespeare character he identifies with most. For a moment, he sits forward in his black leather chair like a kid forced to pick between his favourite toys. “Benedick I like enormously,” he concludes. It’s an interesting choice: “he’s very wounded, and funny, and his spikiness is a function of his vulnerability.” What attracts him so much to the protagonist of Much Ado About Nothing (aside from the actor he cast to play him, Simon Russell Beale) is his willingness to do “something suicidally brave for Beatrice,” his adversary-cum-lover, when he challenges his former best friend Claudio to a duel he has little chance of winning. Hytner doesn’t even think “you’d want to hang out with Hamlet as much as you’d like to hang out with Benedick.” The former may be “enormously good company,” but there’s no getting away from his brutishness. Famously, Hamlet kills more named characters than Brutus, Coriolanus or even Macbeth.
It strikes me just how strongly Hytner envisions Benedick and Hamlet and Othello as personalities rather than characters. They, like us, are steeped in the mess of real life. The solution is not the academic but the actor, as Hytner writes in his programme notes to Othello. In the theatre, what unites us with Shakespeare is greater than what divides us from him. It’s the only place where we can find a dialogue with him, “where he can speak directly to us.” And that’s quite an achievement for a 400-year-old playwright about whom we know next to nothing. Hytner is convinced that the plays won’t lose their urgency over time, or become incomprehensible: “they’re good enough to survive – they’ll get tinkered with, they’ll get altered, they’ll get translated a bit,” but he can’t imagine them becoming as intractable as Webster or Jonson is now. It was Virginia Woolf who wrote that “the very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare,” but I’m not sure Hytner would wholly agree. To him, we will obsess about Shakespeare for as long as we are ourselves, for as long as we are human enough for anything to matter: “we speak the way we speak, and we think the way we think to a certain degree because of the way Shakespeare has entered into our bloodstream,” he argues.
On Hytner’s watch, it’s hard to deny that Shakespeare has become a vital force in the National’s bloodstream. In fact, an awful lot has changed since his first days in the job way back in April 2003. He settles a jeaned leg lightly on the coffee table, before reminiscing: “I do look back on 2003 and think that almost every one of the big decisions could have gone the other way,” he tells me. Fortunately, they didn’t: Jerry Springer the Opera turned out better than expected (“and the people it offended it was good news to offend,” he adds); new plays in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre saw success; and His Dark Materials took the plaudits. “They all worked – every single one.” His relief and disbelief, even ten years on, is palpable: “That could have been very, very different.”
“I wonder what I would say,” comes his inquisitive reply when I ask what advice he’d give to his former self if he could rewind a decade. He pauses for a while. I’ve got used to his way of sending his words across to me like chess pieces, each move contemplated and considered: “I think I would say, ‘you will never regret being wild and bold, and turning down the tasteful option in favour of the rough, provocative one.’ That’s what I’d say,” he reaffirms, this time with certainty. He freely admits that he’s fallen out of love with the job for brief periods, when the repertoire has been boring, predictable. “Ticking over” isn’t the Hytner way. “I’ve never regretted having messy things,” he says, “but I’ve regretted having boring things. I’ve hated that.”
When he speaks about it, it’s clear that One Man, Two Guv’nors is up there with his most enjoyable experiences. He wouldn’t have done it at all, he reminds me, if he hadn’t had to deliver it for the National. His debt to the organisation and its staff is never too far away. “That summer we had a very, very heavy repertoire,” he begins his account of the play’s genesis. And before I know it, he’s breathlessly soliloquising his thought process, reliving the moment: “‘We need something that makes an audience laugh. Oh God, it’s about time James Corden stopped doing those ridiculous quiz shows. And why don’t we try to put him together with this play, this play that I actually know from childhood? I think I have an idea about it, as it turns out.’ And it all just kind of happened out of a feeling of responsibility to the repertoire of this theatre. ‘I’ll do a comedy this summer – everybody all right with that?’ ‘Yeah, they’re all right with that.’” I sense that part of his delight at this particular production – which sold out in London and New York – comes from surprise: surprise at what he (with Richard Bean, the writer, and James Corden) could do, at their ability to magic up something wonderful out of absolutely nothing. “That’s been the biggest perk,” he reveals, the freedom to remove all the limits and the constraints, to “direct exactly what I wanted to direct.”
What people think of his work barely seems to register. “I don’t care really. I don’t care,” he reiterates firmly. It’s a response that seems more genuine than blasé: “I’m very happy to get from day to day, and year to year.” His chair rotates slightly, and he leans his chin gently against finger and thumb. Theatre is demanding at the best of times, but it doesn’t seem to have jaded him. In fact, he appears younger than he is – and that’s partly because of the freshness with which he answers questions he must have heard in some form or another a million times before. “To a very large degree,” he continues, “if I get to my last day here without the place sliding down the pan; if I can feel that for 12 years, it has deserved its title and it was as good as it needed to be to maintain the hold it’s always had on its audiences, I’ll be very happy.”
And his legacy? Hytner’s not too bothered about that, either. He draws a parallel, hands moving in sync with voice, between theatre and film: “movie directors very much build up a legacy: it’s there, it’s immovable. They spend their retirement going from retrospective to retrospective and festival to festival being lauded and honoured,” he laughs. When Martin Scorsese pitches up for a Martin Scorsese retrospective, he can still put on a DVD of Taxi Driver. “It might be received a little bit differently,” concedes Hytner, “but never as differently as a play would be because it’s always going to be the same: frozen.” The beauty of the theatre lies in its inconstancy, its ephemerality; night after night, season after season: “it’s here, it’s there, it’s gone.”
Soon enough, that will be the fate of Sir Nicholas’ tenure at the National. But, characteristically, he doesn’t want to make a point of his departure: “I don’t think I want to do a big farewell spectacular,” he tells me. I’m not surprised. “I’ve got 18 months more, I’m just finishing off the planning for next year, and I think I should just try and do the same as I’ve always tried to do.” It’s hard to argue with that. He shifts in his chair and his voice sinks low, as if he doesn’t want to presume too far: “at some point, I guess I’ll want to do what everybody else has done – sit down and try to write about what I’ve found out so far. But I’d much prefer just to go on and work.”
The National will be a strange place when Hytner steps down from his post in 2015. I, for one, am too young to remember what it was like before he took the helm. His successor would do well to make as energetic, as positive, as bold a mark. They certainly have the mother of all boots to fill. We both stand, exchange thanks, and he opens the door. I take a last look out of the window, before exiting, stage left.