For the real action in London theater these days, you've got to leave the storied West End palaces and venture into a boxy concrete structure on the other side of the Thames, where Nicholas Hytner has brought fresh life to Britain's National Theatre. Since taking over last April, Hytner (director of the acclaimed 1992 revival of Carousel) has had a hot hand. First came Jerry Springer: The Opera, a musical spoof of the tabloid talk show that became a sellout hit. Following it has been a string of successes, from hard-to-stage classics (Helen Mirren in Mourning Becomes Electra) to political drama (Michael Frayn's Democracy, about former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt) to a lavishly mounted, six-hour adaptation of Philip Pullman's series of young-adult novels, His Dark Materials. Hytner's mission has been to add more diversity, in both subject matter and style. When the National was founded in 1963, he notes, "a national theater meant something homogenous in race, class and culture. Now there are all sorts of overlapping communities, a much more vital, creative patchwork. We have to reflect that vitality." It involves more than just staging works like Elmina's Kitchen, about East London's violence-plagued black community. Hytner has cut the price for two-thirds of the seats in the National's largest theater to a rock-bottom £10, attracting crowds. British theater sets the pace worldwide, and Hytner's National now sets the pace in Britain. "The National has revitalized debate everywhere," says Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse theater. "Everyone has had to respond and raise their game."
From the Archive
Jerry Springer: The Opera