Tag Archives: Nicholas Hytner

“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