by Nicholas Hytner

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Director of the National Theatre from 2003 to 2015, Nicholas Hytner arrived in post needing some commercial successes so that the NT could also stage riskier works and keep afloat even as public funding lessened. During his tenure NT produced History Boys, War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and One Man Two Guv’nors – among two hundred or so other shows. Balancing Shakespeare with Alan Bennett, Richard Bean with Greek tragedy, and established musicals with cutting edge new writing to fill the three very different performance spaces which make up the National, is partly what this memoir is about. It’s also, among other things, about balancing what playwrights write with what you want and between creating challenging but not chaotic theatre.

Hytner takes us, fascinatingly and often wittily, though many of the plays he himself directed and he writes warmly of some the actors who have become National Theatre “regulars” and personal friends including Alex Jennings, Simon Russell-Beale, Rory Kinnear and the late Richard Griffiths. For a reader who saw most of those plays, the book is a joyful reminder of the excitement of some of this work. If you missed some or all of these shows, then this is a chance to learn about some pretty iconic productions.

He also discusses plays and what makes them work. Much Ado About Nothing (who knew that the Elizabethan slang for vagina was “nothing”?) is, we learn, his favourite play and he’s very enlightening in recalling the production he directed with Simon Russell-Beale as Benedick and Zoe Wanamaker as Beatrice.

He doesn’t avoid difficult issues either. He has clearly had a less than smooth working relationship with highly acclaimed director Katie Mitchell whose working methods he respects although they are very different from his own.

The Tower Theatre which opens this autumn near Tower Bridge is Hytner’s new project. Working again with Nick Starr, former executive director at the National, he is promising us much more while his successor breaks new ground a mile west along the Thames. It’s yet another sort of balance.

Review by Susan Elkin