Eighteen months ago, I stood on the Olivier stage before the first preview of Emil and the Detectives, doing a St Crispin’s day number on around 100 child actors and their director – to tell them how well they were doing, and to wish them good luck.
I hadn’t properly introduced myself to them, so a small boy at the back whispered loudly to one of the stage managers: "Is that Laurence Olivier?"
"No," said the stage manager, "that’s Nick Hytner. He’s the director of the National Theatre. Which is what Laurence Olivier used to be."
The boy thought about that for a moment.
"Oh, I get it," he said. "Like Doctor Who."
Six months after my regeneration as Rufus Norris, the new series is confidently underway. I’m now the past, so, as the Tardis takes off and circles the theatre, I’ll gaze out of it and try to share an ex-Doctor’s perspective on these last 12 years.
But if I’m to be honest, my view from the Tardis puts me back to where I was before I even dared call myself a director, when I was a besotted fan. And this fan-boy, who only ever wanted to hang out with the cool actors and writers, got to be at the centre of a 12-year party – backstage, front of house, in the rehearsal room, most of the time completely blown away.
Imagine seeing in the rehearsal room a performance like Anne-Marie Duff’s in Shaw’s Saint Joan, the embodiment of courage in the face of a ruthless male establishment. Or a show like Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road, the best first run-through I’ve ever seen, a shattered community reborn in their own words, set to music of piercing originality, and directed with total authority by Rufus Norris, whose body of amazing work for the National it has been a privilege to witness.
I remember all the first previews, none as exciting as The History Boys: the tsunami of laughter that engulfed the French lesson, the euphoria that stopped the show when Frances De La Tour remembered her first pizza, and the growing certainty that we were home free. I remember other first previews, which I won’t name, when the opposite happened, when you could smell the audience’s indifference – like a wet towel you forgot to put in the wash. But I knew what the rapt silence meant that greeted Richard Griffiths when he used Thomas Hardy’s poem Drummer Hodge to form a kind of communion of loneliness with the clever, gay kid; and with everyone in the audience who had ever felt unloved.
Alan Bennett has given me his plays for 25 years now. They’ve been part of the luck I’ve had, the undeserved good fortune that’s run through my career so far like a golden thread. His plays take you by surprise by thrusting you into a fellowship with the unlikeliest human outcasts. Who would have thought they would see themselves in a pathetic groper of a schoolmaster, in a mad and incontinent king, in a smelly old lady in a van, in a filthy old poet who pees in his kitchen sink?
But isn’t that what the theatre does? If it’s working, you’re never a passive spectator. You’re part of a conspiracy of the imagination – in a living relationship with actors who can remake reality for you, who can expand your sympathies, enrage you at the world’s injustices, paralyse you with laughter at its absurdities, knock you sideways with its grace.
Nobody gets this more than Marianne Elliott, whose productions over the years, culminating in War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, have redrawn the expressive boundaries of the theatre. I’ll never forget the first time I saw them.
But there is nothing, and no show, about which someone won’t write in to complain – my favourite correspondents being those who wrote to berate me for physically abusing the blameless member of the audience who volunteered to help in Richard Bean’s riotous One Man, Two Guvnors. (She was a plant.) And I’ll hear nothing against the National’s actors, and their miraculous synthesis of imagination, honesty and technique.
Occasionally you find life imitating art, imitating life. Something like that happened to David Hare’s scintillating play about the events that led to the Iraq War, Stuff Happens. Ten years on, it’s become perfectly clear that the playwright’s intuition was truer than the historical record, and a great deal cheaper and quicker than the Chilcot Report.
Nadia Fall’s play Home, in the Shed last year, was another verbatim piece, about a hostel for the young homeless. Half way through the run, the young people whose words Nadia had put on stage came to see the play – and it was overwhelming to watch them watch themselves, their lives transmuted into art – an art which demanded that the world’s most fortunate see the world from their point of view.
You come to the theatre and you reach out across the void and touch lives you seem to have led. And you come again and seem to live vanished lives, strange and alien lives. Whole worlds are captured not by the camera, and frozen; but live, by an act of collective imagination, that makes you part of them. Provincial Russia in 1901 – in Gorky’s Philistines; a Harlem storefront church in 1954 – in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner; Homeric Greece; Philip Pullman’s parallel universes; Rona Munro’s medieval Scotland; Kwame Kwei-Armah’s London – all of them as alive and real as each other. I’ve been lucky to see them all take shape.
Not much remains but to say – from the bottom of my heart – thank you: to those I’ve worked with, my colleagues, and to our supporters, without whose help we couldn’t do half of what we want to do. The real truth is that the theatre was run by Nick Starr. We were a double act from day one, and I relied on him for everything that didn’t happen in the rehearsal room, and for quite a lot of what did.
So the Tardis is on the edge of whatever space/time vortex awaits ex-Directors of the National Theatre, but I’m allowed one more glimpse out of the window. And it’s of what I think was probably my favourite show of all – the Much Ado About Nothing I did with Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale in 2007.
It ends with a double wedding, one of them – between Hero and Claudio – like so many of Shakespeare’s dodgy marriages, between two beautiful young people who have barely begun to see each other properly. The couple that matters is Beatrice and Benedick, miraculously in love after half a lifetime of mutual suspicion, marrying because they know the worst of each other as well as the best.
As the great stage revolved, Zoë and Simon were the centre of an amazing party, an eruption of ecstasy. But as the dancing got wilder and wilder, the two old lovers slipped away, and found a bench in the corner; and as the light faded on the dance, they got on with what made them happiest – laughing, gossiping, talking with each other.
I’ve been at the centre of this amazing party for 12 years, and now I’m going to sit it out for a while; but the music won’t end – Rufus and Lisa have it in hand – so the dance will go on for as long as there are friends to join it.
It’s been an absolute blast.
This is an edited version of a speech made by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre in March 2015.