Friday, 27 March 2015

Hytner's National - a brief retrospective

A little Twittery bird has pointed out that today is Nicholas Hytner's last day at the National Theatre. Although I didn't really start regularly attending the National until 2008, five years into his tenure, I've nonetheless seen a fairly respectable 111 unique National Theatre productions in seven different spaces in the NT complex (and a few outside), and have spent an absolutely incalculable number of hours besides in that lovely great concrete block. I've seen trends come and go - remember how great the Lyttelton was in 2010? And how tippety-top the Cottesloe was in its dying days? - and I've experienced a FULL range of emotions in that building, for better and for worse.

People with more knowledge and eloquence than I have will be producing proper articles about the great things that have been achieved since Hytner took the reins in 2003 so I'm not even going to try. What I have done instead is quickly bash together my top ten NT productions from the Hytner regime. And my bottom five, because I'm a massive proponent of the idea that our theatres should have the freedom to fail. It's always better to be able to take risks that sometimes go horribly wrong than to trundle along respectably but unremarkably, and it's worth celebrating that even if I'm doing so by producing a short list of tedium and rage. The fact I have some productions to actually rank as bottom rather than just "nothing special but okay" is one of the many things I love about the National Theatre.

- productions need to have originated during the Hytner years.
- productions don't need to have been seen by me at the NT as long as they came from there.
- productions don't need to have been directed by Hytner, just being programmed is fine.
- productions are listed in chronological order to save the trauma of having to rank them, though I do have a definite favourite.
- productions should have originated at the NT rather than being imported from elsewhere, though I have let one of those onto the list anyway. We can pretend it stands symbolically for all the wonderful shows that have come into the building via other theatres.

The Top Ten

Caroline, Or Change (Lyttelton, 6th December 2006)
My very first trip to the National, and the only import I've allowed onto the top ten. It's impossible to ignore the incredible combination of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, and Tonya Pinkins gave what is still one of the most spine-tinglingly brilliant musical theatre performances I've ever had the privilege to see. It gets away with being on the list despite being an import because of all the wonderful British supporting cast, which included Clive Rowe, Anna Francolini, and future dame Pippa Bennett-Warner.

Much Ado About Nothing (Olivier, 22nd January 2008)
My very second trip to the National, my very first Much Ado, and it was Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker. I am EXTREMELY lucky I came to Shakespeare when I did so as not to have missed out on wonderful productions such as this.

War Horse (Olivier, 24th January 2008)
Aaand my very third trip to the National! (It'll get shaken up in a minute, promise.) It's been said before but it bears repeating that in this current puppet-friendly theatrical landscape, it's very easy to forget what a terrific gamble War Horse was when it first appeared. No one's ever going to defend the script, but what a tremendous display of all the different aspects of theatre coming together to make one unforgettable whole.

The White Guard (Lyttelton, 7th April 2010)
You know, I'm not even going to talk about it. If you saw it, you'll know why. If you didn't see it, it's unfair to keep rubbing it in (even though "rubbing it in that people didn't see The White Guard" is something that's been happening on and off for nearly five years now).

After The Dance (Lyttelton, 27th June 2010)
I'm not sure I need to talk about this one either. An early triumph in the recent Rattigan revival, and the last time it was easy to get a ticket for something starring Benedict Cumberbatch. To his credit, he was excellent in this, but so was everyone, especially future dame Nancy Carroll, Adrian Scarborough (both of whom rightly won the Oliviers for their performances), and new (at the time) favourite John Heffernan. (For anyone who's not sure, this here is my absolute number one NT production EVER.)

Earthquakes In London (Cottesloe, 11th August 2010)
I can see how it was flawed. But that doesn't matter, because all I can truly remember these days is how deeply I loved it. It was so much fun with its use of space and music, and the cast were totally excellent, and I'm going to have to reread it once I get home tonight damnit. This wasn't my first Rupert Goold, but it was my first Mike Bartlett, and I still think fondly of the pair of 'em.

London Road (Cottesloe, 27th May 2011)
Another example of a complete risk that was still sounding like a terrible idea right up until opening - "a verbatim musical about the Ipswich prostitute murders? Are you HIGH?" - but triumphed mightily. I even invented a game based on it. (If you're travelling down a road that is called London Road, count hanging baskets. If you get to 17, you win. I never said it was a sophisticated game.) I'm pretty excited to see the film come June.

Emperor And Galilean (Olivier, 26th June 2011)
When an actor is great, people say "I want to see his Hamlet!". But when an actor is as great as Andrew Scott, Hamlet just doesn't seem enough somehow. Thank God then for Emperor Julian. The idea of an overlong Ibsen didn't really sound like anyone's idea of a good time, but the great production combined with the towering performances quickly sorted us out.

This House (Cottesloe, 6th October 2012)
I was extremely fortunate to win a Twitter competition that awarded me two tickets to every NT production for the duration of 2012. This ensured I was able to very easily see several Cottesloe productions that I wasn't considering or that were obnoxiously quick sellers. I was definitely considering this one, so it must have fallen into the latter category, and I was extremely grateful for my win, because this production was ace.

The Elephantom (Shed, 21st December 2013)
I got excited about quite a few productions in 2013, but the problem with getting excited about productions is that you can often find that they don't live all the way up to your expectations. The Elephantom not only met my expectations but exceeded them beyond my wildest dreams. I am NOT EVEN SORRY about this taking up a space on my top ten that could have gone to any number of "worthier" productions.

The Bottom Five

England People Very Nice (Olivier, 29th April 2009)
When the conversation turns to shows you left at the interval, I usually bring this one up as an example of one I should have left but didn't. It was my first Richard Bean, and our relationship has not improved. It was also my first Michelle Terry and the fact I love her so much now is a real testament to how brilliant she is to overcome my memories of this.

Danton's Death (Olivier, 15th August 2010)
Let's get this straight - Danton's death was TERRIFIC, I'm still trying to work out how they did it. But the preceding 89 minutes of Danton's life were EXTREMELY DULL.

Twelfth Night (Cottesloe, 19th February 2011)
I love this play, but every now and then I get a flashback to this production and I get angry all over again.

One Man Two Guvnors (Adelphi, 30th November 2011)
If you ever want to have the conversation, I'll happily fill you in. I know I'm in the minority about this play and I don't even care, I just hated it with a fury.

Damned By Despair (Olivier, 5th October 2012)
Ah now, in fairness, I think of this one with a lot of affection. They still had the flaming skeleton when we went, and I got to spend time with a friend I don't see often enough (and we're still friends even after I took her to this!), and we had delicious Mexican food for dinner, and I reckon it was a bargain considering how much we paid for the tickets. But I can see how people who didn't get the flaming skeleton and who had to pay more than "a tweet" for their tickets might have been appalled, so in it goes. I saw a poster for it in Paddington (I think) recently, and I did have a good laugh about it.

And there we have it. Now let's see what you've got, Rufus Norris!

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