You would be forgiven to think that a memoir of a dozen terrifically successful years as director of London’s National Theatre would start with a flick of the scarf and away we go. But our protagonist, Nicholas Hytner, is much too cool a cat for that. Vanity is not the way he rolls and he keeps his ego in the shadow. This from a man who, it is no exaggeration, revolutionized the role of artistic director and turned the financial fortunes of the National Theatre neatly around to deep black.
Nor is gossip his thing – not entirely absent from Balancing Acts, but only a couple of the dabs in this pointillist portrait, a finely grained, multifaceted revelation of what it means to be an accomplished artistic director walking that balancing act between high- and low-brow (and entertaining the audience in the process), the insolent with the inclusive, the cackle with the visceral.
Happily, Hytner is no boor either, even without these obvious avenues of approach. He drops names like a flurry of Sugar Ray Leonard punches, but that’s because there are a lot of personalities to mention in 12 years of running three theaters, each theater of different size and emotional personality, and each human personality often accompanied by a crack little vignette or a quote worth remembering. More than once, though none too often, he helps a star down a step or two from vainglory, or pokes some fun at an actor’s foibles.
Between the color commentary and all the humorous cameos – and much the meat of the story – is a master class in the anatomy of artistic directing. Here, too, Hytner is inclusive; a bricklayer, mathematician, or soccer player will become as engrossed by this material as a seasoned director, playwright, or theatergoer. Hytner brought the multiclass attraction to theater by slashing ticket prices in half; better a full theater than a half-full theater for the same receipts. Plus, in the two smaller theaters, he could experiment with prices that were lower than a fast-food dinner as well as experiment with theatrical pieces.
Just some of the things you will read here – occasionally sounding obvious, even trite, but think of how many times you have failed to employ them in your particular situation – are: plays work best when the actor can remember the playwright’s lines; if you only care about what works, meretriciousness lurks; be ambitious and challenging, but sell tickets; rude, disruptive energy makes for a carnival; look into the abyss; make Shakespeare your 400-year-old contemporary; show some abandon, disclose a jagged edge, “tread a tightrope between all your conflicting impulses, to find poise and balance." Sounds like a master class in life.
Theater is critical for society “because a vibrant society thrives on self-examination ... actively engaged in wondering what’s beautiful and what’s truthful.”
Hytner tends to stay away from the self-revealing (except for his run-in with Harold Pinter, which is so invective-strewn it can’t be reproduced here without making the paragraph look like a night sky of asterisks). No, Hytner would rather talk about Shakespeare (and many, many, many another, especially Alan Bennett): how he “interweaves high politics with the concerns of the people,” layers the medieval past on the Elizabethan present, how “ethical absolutes collapse under the weight of lived experience,” how his plays “marginalise women more even than they have been marginalised by history,” or, in "Othello," the staging “invites us not to observe a disordered alien, but to imagine what it would be like to be Iago, so consumed by hatred and envy that he allows them to run out of control.”
Hytner touches down on his pre-National Theatre days, directing (by the seat of his pants) "The Madness of King George" for the big screen and directing the 10-year-running "Miss Saigon" for the big stage: New York’s Broadway. But this is the National Theatre’s day. Hytner mentions all those people with a hand in his productions – and you can imagine most of them, Jonson to Stoppard and a stagehand or two; Shakespeare, too, for this is London’s National Theatre, after all – because without them, the show would not have gone on. Hytner does this all with a brightness that makes you want to hug him.
Next: a new theatrical venue with his old planning-director partner Nick Starr, Bridge Theatre. Prediction: a hit (after hit). Reason: Hytner knows every trick in the book, plus hundreds of his own up his sleeves. Both his head and heart are in the right place. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.