Tag Archives: Nicholas Hytner

“Beat The Devil” at the Bridge Theatre

Leading the return to live theatre, Nicholas Hytner has his venue on the South Bank up and running. OK, it’s a season of monologues and we’ve seen a lot of them online during lockdown. And even though seats have been removed, rather than being left empty, the capacity is sadly shrunk. But the season, and this opening piece, are exciting. And it is great to be back inside an auditorium to experience theatre for real.

David Hare’s monologue is based on his own experience of contracting Covid-19. You might share my reservations about the subject matter – enough pandemic already! – but bringing Hare’s talent and intelligence to the subject is valuable. Full of insight and wit, with a perfect blend of humour around this serious topic, provides a healing quality to the show. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I left feeling that things are starting to get a little better.

The show has star appeal, with Ralph Fiennes taking the role of the writer. The delivery is impeccable, aided by Hytner’s confident direction, always aware of the text’s nuance. The balance of humour, humility and serious points is reflected well in the performance. The effects of this “dirty bomb” of a virus on Hare are detailed but contain no self-pity. More noticeable is the “survivor’s rage” when he comes to consider how politicians have been handling things.

It isn’t hard to claim Hare is preaching to the choir. There’s some fun personifying the virus, imagining it targeting Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s faults. Developing an eloquent disbelief at how incompetent our leaders have shown themselves has considerable bite. As topical as could be, Hare’s anger is hopefully an indication of his full recovery. Holding those with power to account, as he has so many times in the past, is healthy and invigorating.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" at the Bridge Theatre

While Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is always a popular seasonal play, 2019 seems to be the summer for ancient Greeks and misbehaving fairies. While the production at Regent’s Park has already closed, you can still enjoy the Globe’s version, or this one from director Nicholas Hytner. It’s not a competition – the text continually proves its versatility and brings out the best of theatrical creativity. Suffice to point out the five-star reviews for this production and confirm that it thoroughly deserves them.

This is a promenade performance with the Bridge’s stalls space converted for standing patrons. I’m not a fan of the format but appreciate that the atmosphere appeals to many and, without question, Hytner manages it masterfully. The danger is distraction, as you have to keep your eyes peeled for potential moves and be more aware of fellow audience members. Some lines are lost during scene changes; rehearsing “obscenely” being a personal favourite that is sacrificed. All the more credit, then, to the impressive cast who command attention and use the crowd expertly. Above all, praise for designer Bunny Christie, who uses small stages that come up and down (seen in Julius Caesar last year) to great effect. The addition of a collection of beds that rise up to the roof and trapeze artists makes the show a visual delight.

Incorporating the audience is a gift to the comedy in the show. Take the play-within-a-play: as the workmen putting on a show account for playing in the round, this scene proves the highlight of a tremendous performance from Hammed Animashaun, who takes the role of Bottom. And there’s a nice self-deprecating note as well – as Moonshine’s torch blinds Hippolyta, Theseus helpfully consoles and explains by saying, “It’s immersive”. The humour may not be subtle (having such a great response to characters taking selfies is vaguely depressing) but it is sure to prove memorable. Touring one of the beds around the crowd or getting everyone to hold hands and circle the action are fun-filled highlights.

Gwendoline Christie (Titania) and David Moorst (Puck)

Along with Animashaun’s fantastic stage presence the production boasts an acrobatic Puck in David Moorst. A little too keen on his ad libs (which the show abounds in) Moorst’s physical performance is hugely impressive. And he brings an interesting cruel edge to his punk-inspired anarchy. This Puck is not entirely likeable or stable. The four Athenians in the forest feel a little too much like his victims and their roles (led by strong performances from Isis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones, as Hermia and Helena respectively) become more moving than funny.

Hammed Animashaun (Bottom) and Oliver Chris (Oberon)

Hytner’s strength is that, for all the fun, he isn’t afraid to make the show serious. There’s real tension in the plight of Hippolyta and the young lovers, a drama led by the excellent Oliver Chris, whose Theseus is steely to the point of sinister. And there’s an air of menace in Titania’s plot against Oberon – no, that’s not a mistake. In a brilliant gender swap, Gwendoline Christie gets the larger role as a Fairy Queen victimising her husband. A swipe at the patriarchy? Maybe, but while Oberon’s affair with Bottom gets plenty of giggles (praise for Chris and Animashaun again) the swap adds another layer of transgression that makes this dream edgy. Gender fluidity in Shakespeare is embraced more than ever at the moment, and Hytner is very much on board. But it’s because his direction recognises there can be bad dreams as well as good ones that his show appears so magical.

Until 31 August 2019

https://bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Alys, Always" at the Bridge Theatre

Harriet Lane’s novel about an unassuming sub-editor called Frances, whose life becomes entangled with a famous author after a car accident, is a quality page turner. Bringing the story to the stage, Lucinda Coxon retains its strong plot and much of the book’s flavour: an air of Daphne du Maurier with a Ripleyesque lead make for a sturdy combination. There’s a stumble over the humour in the piece – Lane has a wry eye that Coxon has blurred – but the show is never less than entertaining.

With a strong cast, including Robert Glenister as the writer Laurence and Joanna David as his agent, there’s insight into London’s literati. But too many stabs at the middle classes become a problem in the role of Polly, Alys’ daughter. This spoilt rich girl is too broadly painted and easy to laugh at – a shame as Leah Gayer, who makes her professional debut in the part, clearly has the ability to make the character more sympathetic. Instead there’s less tension surrounding Frances manipulating the younger woman than there should be.

Even worse, too many jokes set in Frances’ workplace show the parallel plot of her blossoming career being mishandled by Coxon. In place of presenting another side to our heroine’s burgeoning ambition, we get a checklist of woes about the modern media that are both too familiar and unconvincing. Again, the gags have the detrimental effect of making many roles too slight. Frances’ editor and rival colleague Oliver see Sylvestra Le Touzel and Simon Manyonda struggling to fill out their parts.

Thankfully Alys, Always is more drama than comedy. And director Nicholas Hytner has always been good with suspense. He knows how to pace a text and place a body so that a glance between characters crackles with tension. There’s little overt confrontation, but its potential bubbles under in many scenes (Sam Woolf as Alys’ son is especially good). And there’s an impressive eye on the intricacies of class, revealing aspirations that become the catalysts for Alice’s actions. Bob Crowley’s set may be minimal but, along with Christina Cunningham’s costumes and Luke Halls’ video design, the details are precisely focused.

Frances, the unfairly ignored central figure, is key to the novel, which she narrates, and she fits comfortably on the stage thanks to a fine performance from Joanne Froggatt. Ever the underdog, sympathy is won quickly but, as this good Samaritan becomes a sinister gold digger, Froggatt still keeps us on side. From lies that might have a noble motivation, through to tasteless if harmless kleptomania for “talismans”, a combination of worry and repulsion surrounds her. The plots and emotional manipulation intrigue and excite. Even when Frances becomes ruthless, there’s the thrill that her plans might work and a quiet cheer for this special heroine.

Until 30 March 2019

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

"Allelujah!" at the Bridge Theatre

In his 84th year, Alan Bennett has written his most topical and overtly political play yet. Set on a geriatric ward, this is a heartfelt appeal for the NHS in its anniversary year and a play that is as challenging as it is amusing. Using the term youthful as praise seems inappropriate, but the piece feels fresh and bold regardless of the average age of its cast and creatives.
Allelujah! is full of songs and fun. With a massive cast, of mainly elderly characters, there is a sense of studies rather than fully fledged personalities. The experienced ensemble does well and is always entertaining, but it is great lines rather than roles that allow the likes of Gwen Taylor and Jeff Rawle to shine. Bennett adds life by injecting frank remarks and some swearing. It’s a simple but effective move.
When it comes to those running the hospital, conditions improve. There’s still some flab and flat parts – Bennett’s long-time director Nicholas Hytner could have been stricter. But from the hospital’s incompetent chairman, an excellent performance from Peter Forbes, and the stalwart Sister Gilchrist, a role that Deborah Findlay is superb in, Bennett points out systemic problems and gives them dramatic impact.

Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett
Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett

Samuel Barnett plays another villain, a management consultant, and is joined by fellow former History Boy Sacha Dhawan as the appealing Dr Valentine. The pair are polar opposites – indeed a story about migration feels a touch tagged on – but both do well to make Bennett’s blunt approach work. By the time we get to the plot twist, the whole atmosphere is appropriately spirited – nothing exercises emotions like the NHS.
The sensational storyline might be criticised in a younger writer. Given his pedigree, it seems safe to say that Bennett is aware of any potential drawbacks. Throwing a lot of subtlety to the wind, he joins the often reviled group of angry old men. And good for him. Allelujah! becomes hectoring towards the end; the patients’ patriotic singalong seems jolly enough, but there is little hope or glory around. Yet the anger here is salutary, Bennett wants to shake us up and, as a result, his play is a surprise.
Until 29 September 2018
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Julius Caesar" at the Bridge Theatre

Showing off his new venue’s versatility, director Nicholas Hytner has transformed London’s newest theatre for only its second show. Presenting Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy as a promenade performance, with the pit peopled by theatregoers standing in for the populace, reveals a cavernous space that seems rather empty at first. But as Bunny Christie’s set of rising and falling cubes gets into action we see Hytner’s skill at staging. This crowd control is superbly done, and probably fun if you are in among the action (I paid to sit). But it’s almost too interesting to watch the hard-working ushers moving the crowd around.
In a play that discusses manipulating the masses so openly, there’s a kind of appropriateness to being distracted by the mechanics of the production. There are many instances when it’s clear the show is trying hard to be a spectacle with impressive touches that give it an expensive feel. It’s loud – right from the start when a band opens the show – and Bruno Poet’s lighting design is superb. Scenes of battle include a barricade that appears with stunning speed to divide the space. There’s even a Jeep for a few seconds.

Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw

The performances have to fight against a lot here – with mixed results and plenty of shouting. Those who join the mob seem best placed, including Rosie Ede and the show’s lead vocalist Abraham Popoola. But David Calder’s Caesar seems lost; presenting him as a populist politician may make the production feel topical but it stunts his performance, making the role a box ticked rather than a figure to engage with. David Morrissey’s Marc Antony holds the crowd, he is convincing and a suitable heir to his crowd-pleasing mentor. Ben Whishaw delivers his lines with finesse and his performance is in keeping with a theme of sincere activism, but his Brutus is too meek. Cast as an academic who plays with his spectacles, it’s tricky to see his nobility behind his obscurantism. There are also strong performances from two women cast in traditionally male roles: Michelle Fairley and Adjoa Andoh make an impassioned Cassius and a ruthless Casca, respectively.
It is nuance that is lost in Hytner’s production. The action is clear, often exciting, but rather too black and white. And this is a humourless Julius Caesar. Of course, the play isn’t a comedy but there’s usually a cynicism that delivers a dark wit. These characters are all politicians, after all, manipulating one another as well as the mob, but the tone is one of intellectual conviction. Arguably, it’s in keeping with the times to persist in such an earnest tone. What inspires Hynter is a feeling of youthful sincerity – but this doesn’t make the play particularly interesting or entertaining.
Until 15 April 2018
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Young Marx" at the Bridge Theatre

There’s nothing more exciting than a new theatre. And, bearing in mind that Nicholas Hytner’s new venue is the biggest in London for a long time, its opening night is a major cultural event to really celebrate. In truth, it’s a bit of a box of place – in one of those luxury housing developments you wish you could afford but wouldn’t live in if you could – trying hard to be swish (expensive sarnies) and smelling a bit too new. But the play’s the thing and, to open his new home Hytner, has collaborated with regular favourites to deliver a real crowd pleaser.
The true history of Karl Marx’s early years living in London is fascinating, with a fact-stranger-than-fiction appeal – it seems that Marx was an expert in economics but couldn’t handle his own money. The lead role provides an enviable part for Rory Kinnear, who embraces this larger-than-life, Bohemian (yes, really) philosopher. With One Man Two Guvnors and Dead Ringers writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman at work, the play is, as you would expect, good, old-fashioned funny.
With the excellent Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, the two revolutionaries make a comedy double act. They even have a piano, until the bailiffs call and, as invited, literally, take a chair. There’s more than a hint of the Marx Brothers here – there’s even a cigar or two. Add numerous emigrés with funny accents (Tony Jayawardena is a highlight as the impoverished family’s doctor) and you have more than enough comedy ingredients. Kinnear is even good for some slapstick. Hytner enjoys this stuff – as do audiences – and his direction is faultless.
Just to make sure all bases are covered, we get some light extrapolation of Marxist ideas to give us something to think about, and it’s pretty evenly handled, with nice touches of hindsight. And there’s pathos: the death of a Marx child is movingly portrayed. The treatment of Marx’s wife and mistress short-changes two excellent actors – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone – and it becomes hard to believe these women stuck around. And there is angst: that Marx fears unleashing the “virus of hope” with his writing is an interesting idea, but we need to see more of Marx’s power, rather than just being told about it. Maybe that would have made things too serious?
Young Marx tries hard to be a hit – and it deserves to be one. Even with the best reputation and address book in the business, starting a new commercial theatre is a brave move by Hytner and his producer Nick Starr. As new plays go, this is a pretty safe bet. But Hytner understandably has a cautious eye on commercial success. A big show to get people talking is exactly what is needed and my fingers are crossed for just that.
Until 31 December 2017
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photo by Manuel Harlan

"Timon of Athens" at the National Theatre

While directors seldom shy away from interpreting Shakespeare, sometimes searching almost perversely for a spin that promotes their production, Nicholas Hytner’s Timon of Athens offers something different. As Shakespeare’s least known work, we have the unusual situation of an audience coming to the show fresh. As a result, the new production at the National Theatre makes a remarkable contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival, presenting a contemporary sounding voice that demands to be heard.
Timon of Athens contains more parable than plot and traces the downfall of the eponymous protagonist, who is ruined by his generosity in a mercenary world. It’s easy to see the writing on the wall for Timon, but filling the play with contemporary references, setting the action in Canary Wharf and Parliament, and casting the rebel Alcibiades as a political protestor in the mould of ‘Occupy’ movement, give the production a powerful resonance in our financially unstable times. It’s a wicked world out there; you’ve only got to watch out for the on-stage product placement from Jaeger to have your cynicism reinforced.
The play’s main fault lies with its characterisation but Hytner’s cast manages to deal with this. Deborah Findlay is superb as Timon’s steward, adding emotional punch to the play, while Hilton McRae is excellent as the philosopher Apemantus. In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale gives a magnificent performance: his powerful presence matches the play’s directness – there are no byways here, just a monotonous misanthropy. Few actors could carry the violence of Timon’s language, his prayer of vengeance, this convincingly. Both Russell Beale and Hytner convey the bleakest view of humanity, making Timon of Athens the National’s most radical, challenging production for quite some time.
Until 31 October 2012
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 18 July 2012 for The London Magazine

"Travelling Light" at the National Theatre

Cinema and theatre have always had a close symbiosis. The relationship is often fruitful but, for those who love live arts more, Nicholas Wright’s new play, Travelling Light, about the fascinating early days of the motion picture, is an opportunity to convey emotions and ideas with an intimacy that stage, rather than screen, promotes.
There are moments when Travelling Light uses the power theatre has to grab your attention like nothing else. It’s the tale of Motl Mendl, a Russian Jew, falling in love with the new medium of film and a girl who acts in his first picture. Punctuated with witty observations on the nature of art (a scene of the first focus group for a movie is delightful) and nostalgically interspaced with reflections from Mendl in later life, it’s an interesting story, well told – unfortunately there never seems very much at stake.
Damien Molony and Paul Jesson are both commendable as the flawed hero Mendl and there is a strong performance from Lauren O’Neil as his love interest. But the core of the play is Mendl’s relationship with his first ‘producer’, the rough and ready mill-owner of his hometown performed by Antony Sher. Clearly loving being back on stage at the National, Sher gives a robust, heart-warming performance in a difficult role that could easily turn into parody.
Unfortunately, Sher’s performance is the only thing that makes Travelling Light really compelling. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is clear and concise but the projection of film on to Bob Crowley’s design seems to have missed a trick or two.
Wright’s text seldom rises above the level of entertainment, and that isn’t much of a fault, but we often expect more from theatre, don’t we? It’s a double standard, of course, but Travelling Light is a little too light and this story of moving pictures not moving enough.
Until 6 March 2012
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 19 January 2012 for The London Magazine

"Collaborators" at the National Theatre

Having welcomed Danny Boyle earlier this year, the National Theatre now stages a new play written by his frequent collaborator John Hodge. A fantasia inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s play about Stalin, commissioned for the dictator’s 60th birthday, Collaborators is a romp around censorship and responsibility.
Working in the round for the first time in many years Nicholas Hytner directs with zeal. Designer Bob Crowley’s constructivist inspired set doubles as the Bulgakov home and a bunker under the Kremlin where the writer and tyrant meet. The theatre-loving Stalin can’t resist helping out. “Leave the slave labour to me,” he says, offering himself as amanuensis, then taking up the pen in person – on the condition that Bulgakov has a turn at running the country. It’s a glib allusion, but performed with such brilliance that its questionable taste is pushed to the back of your mind.
The wonderful Alex Jennings is Bulgakov, a “smack head groin doc turned smut scribe,” as Hodge brilliantly describes him. Jennings brings every nuance out of the role showing convincing relationships with Jacqueline Defferary, who plays his wife, and Mark Addy, who excels as the Secret Service man tasked with directing the play. Addy’s changing attitude to his artistic challenge, and the snippets of the play we get to see performed so skilfully by Perri Snowdon and Michael Jenn, are a real joy.
There aren’t many stage actors that can rival Jennings. But Simon Russell Beale is among them. His despot with a West Country burr is a hilarious and chilling creation – one who manipulates the audience as skilfully as his character plays with the writer.
Collaborators suffers slightly from the brevity that is also frequently its virtue: Hodge’s writing is immediate and clear but, as the drama increases, the play itself is not always dark or detailed enough to satisfy. Nonetheless, Collaborators is very funny indeed and, with its stellar cast, is an unmissable winter highlight.
Until 31 March 2012
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 8 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“Hamlet” at the National Theatre

It’s not just theatre critics who have seen a lot of Hamlets – pretty much everyone has. So, as with all directors, and all Hamlets, Nicholas Hytner and Rory Kinnear face the challenge of pinning down the complex text and the temptation of adding a new twist. The National’s first Hamlet since 2000 sees them juggling these demands to produce an enthralling night out.

The production is clear, thoughtful and delivered with commitment. This Hamlet isn’t mad (so that’s one examination question sorted) and the decision to have him truly ‘put on’ his antic disposition turns the pretend insanity into a dramatic political act. This Denmark is a surveillance state with a secret service continually present. The heavies may be ineffective (think of the body count at the end) but they add tension, a topical twist and make Hamlet’s soliloquies all the more precious.

Overall, this is Hytner’s most disciplined direction for quite some time, and yet there are digressions that feel like desperate attempts to impress the teacher. Ruth Negga as Ophelia suffers most. Adding a feisty modern touch to this sensitive character is confusing and the implication that she is murdered is frankly silly. Costuming Kinnear in a tracksuit and adding rave music is distracting  – he is too old for it. And it is unecessary.

For this is a Hamlet with everything. Kinnear’s performance is remarkable and exciting. His Hamlet is the chameleon he proclaims himself as, with an over-arching concern for what this changeability might mean. Making full use of the character’s wry humour and intelligence, Kinnear’s grand delivery is perfect for the prince with a penchant for performance. At times he is quite literally in control of the spotlight and he always convincingly fills the stage.

As if Kinnear weren’t thrilling enough, this Hamlet boasts the finest Gertrude for many years. Clare Higgins gives a cracking performance with more than a touch of Joan Crawford (you can bet the bodyguards’ smart suits are hung on wooden hangers). This Mommie Dearest is formidable and believable – it is clear where a son’s complex comes from. A less confident director than Hytner might try to stem her scene stealing glances. But they add immeasurably, showing not only her ability but also Hytner’s confidence that his production explicates Hamlet in a riveting fashion.

Until 9 January 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 8 October 2010 for The London Magazine