National's anthem

By slashing prices and staging new works instead of revivals, the National Theatre has come to dominate the stage scene in London - and beyond.

At the recent Olivier Awards, the London equivalent to the Tonys, three shows won the top prizes: "The Pillowman" for Best New Play, "Jerry Springer - The Opera" for Best New Musical, and "Mourning Becomes Electra" for Best Revival.

What do all three of these productions have in common? They all were presented at the National Theatre, which, in its first year under artistic director Nicholas Hytner, is enjoying the sort of critical and commercial success to which most theaters on the other side of the Atlantic can only aspire.

Actually, that's true for theaters on the other side of the river Thames, as well. The National, housed in an imposing concrete structure on the South Bank, is not formally a part of London's West End theater scene. But the influence of the government-subsidized theater is rippling across the Thames - and beyond.

Its productions are now on tour in the West End, and Broadway will be the ultimate destination for such successes as "Mourning Becomes Electra," and Tom Stoppard's new "Jumpers." But more important, Mr. Hytner's practice of promoting new pieces, making bold artistic choices, and slashing seat prices is being touted as a business model by theater watchers in both London and New York. But the National enjoys one real advantage that Broadway is unlikely to be able to duplicate: The government foots more than one-third of the bill, which makes even the riskiest of choices ("Jerry Springer" as an opera?) a little less risky.

Hytner, who took over the reins from Trevor Nunn one year ago next month, was no stranger to the National, having directed successful productions there, including "The Madness of King George" (he also directed the film), and a hugely successful revival of "Carousel." But he had never before presided over any theater.

His first year has been such a triumph that Hytner himself felt the need to damp down on the applause. "We will, I promise you, have less successful years than the one we've just had," he said at a recent press conference. "It's a law of nature."

But judging from the accolades, it might take an act of nature to push the National from its dominant position atop London's theater scene. Besides the aforementioned productions, other current shows include Michael Frayn's "Democracy," a play about German politics that recently won the Critics' Circle Award; "His Dark Materials," an ambitious two-part adaptation of the cult fantasy novels by Philip Pullman that has become the hottest ticket in town; and "The Permanent Way," David Hare's riveting documentary drama detailing the failures of the privatized British railway system.

Hytner's approach differs from his predecessor Nunn's, whose successful reign included many lavish classical theater productions and a series of big-budget revivals of classic American musicals (among them "Oklahoma" and "My Fair Lady").

"Trevor Nunn's National was very much about Nunn ... the works he did and the works he wanted to do," says Matt Wolf, the London theater critic for Variety. "He seemed unstoppable in his output, but I think the feeling was that he wasn't interested in casting a wide net."

Not so Hytner, who has declared his intention to limit the works he will personally direct (although he did stage "His Dark Materials").

His most dramatic step was to institute the so-called "Travelex" season in the Olivier, the complex's largest and most problematic theater. The idea to slash two-thirds of the tickets to £10- live theater for the price of a movie - fulfilled its mission of filling seats and attracting new faces to the theater. Indeed, one-third of the audience for the first show in the six-month Travelex season, a production of "Henry V," were newcomers to the National, and the subsequent productions played to an average capacity of 90 percent.

"He's turned that theater into the engine room of the building," says Mr. Wolf. "He's thrown the spotlight on the Olivier in a major way."

Hytner also has shown a dedication to presenting new works, with premières from writers such as Frayn, Hare, McDonagh, Nick Dear, Owen McCafferty, and Kwame Kwei-Armah (the Olivier- nominated "Elmina's Kitchen") during the first season. He's also attracting major acting talent to the complex, including Kenneth Branagh, who trod the London boards for the first time in many years in a powerful revival of David Mamet's "Edmond," and Helen Mirren, who garnered great acclaim for her riveting performance in "Mourning Becomes Electra."

Certainly, casting movie and television stars in theatrical productions is a tactic much used on both sides of the Atlantic. But Toby Whale, the very busy head of casting appointed by Hytner last June, argues that "the National will use somebody like Helen Mirren or Kenneth Branagh because they are great actors rather than box office." And he says, "The working conditions here are very attractive for actors: The choice of plays, the repertory system, the rehearsal period, and the new regime under Nick Hytner offering a varied and dynamic repertory."

The upcoming season promises to continue the strides made in the first. The next Travelex season will include a revival of "Cyrano de Bergerac" staged by Howard Davies and starring Stephen Rea and a Theatre Complicite production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." Other announced shows include "The History Boys," a new play by Alan Bennett to be staged by Hytner, and Stephen Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

The most intriguing production looks to be "Stuff Happens," a yet unwritten play by David Hare about the Iraq war, inspired by a 1998 letter to Bill Clinton urging the removal of Saddam Hussein signed by, among others, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Talking about the production to the British press, Hytner said, "We have to address the big issues of the day. Our job is to engage the audience in passionate and visceral response, which journalism, even at its best, doesn't aspire to."

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