An afternoon of wincing embarrassment spent reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s Black Snow in preparation for a play by John Hodge about Bulgakov and Stalin, which will open at the National in November with Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale. It’s a savage send-up of the Moscow Arts Theatre, and it puts the boot firmly and irresistibly into the legendary director Konstantin Stanislavsky. No theatre director can read it without a frisson of horror and the suspicion that it represents, with forensic accuracy, what playwrights really think about us.
There’s a particularly chilling episode where the thinly disguised Stanislavsky figure gives notes to a playwright that suggest he has misunderstood the play, or wants to impose on it a ragbag of his own obsessions, or possibly hasn’t even read it. He’s vain, treacherous, pretentious, tyrannical and thin-skinned. In the playwright’s suppressed fury, I can see an appalling likeness of the tight-lipped restraint that has greeted my own interventions into countless first drafts.
Bulgakov doesn’t even spare Stanislavsky’s fabled acting method. When the play finally gets into rehearsal, the director ruins perfectly good performances by imposing on them his own self-regarding process, the point being that good actors are good actors, and the best thing Bulgakov thinks a director can do with them is to create the circumstances in which they can flourish, and then get out of the way.
I often find myself juggling a profound belief in the transformative power of theatre with a fear of pretension. I think the strength of the British theatre often lies in the reconciliation of the desire to elevate and the desire to entertain.
At its simplest, that can mean constructing a repertoire that contains both low comedy, such as Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors and Ibsen’s demanding Roman tragedy Emperor and Galilean, both now playing at the National. But I recognise in the director Jonathan Kent’s work on the Ibsen not just respect for an ambitious playwright at the crossroads of his career, grappling with material of immense thematic weight, but also a theatrical panache and an exuberant relish for the possibilities of epic storytelling that refuse to be overawed by the complexity of the play’s ideas.
Meanwhile One Man, Two Guvnors, which I directed myself, is raking in the laughs, and pulling in the crowds. I hope it looks as if all involved have been enjoying ourselves from day one but it’s no secret that comedy is often a nightmare to rehearse. It’s funny for about a week and then you have to spend several more weeks trying to work out what made it funny in the first place.
Three weeks in, I reached for my inner tyrant and banned laughter in the rehearsal room. Actors were sweetly and supportively laughing indiscriminately at each other, to help each other through the fallow patch. It wasn’t helping. It’s no use being made to think you’re funny if you’re not, so I decided there would be only one arbiter of funny in the room: me. In fact, much of what is funniest in One Man, Two Guvnors was created by Cal McCrystal, my associate director, who is a great master of physical comedy. Very impressively, during rehearsal, Cal – who can convulse
an entire audience with a pratfall – rarely breaks into anything warmer than a wintry smile.
One Man, Two Guvnors exists to make its audience laugh but I will risk pretension by claiming a certain rigour in its conception. My colleague Sebastian Born, head of the National’s literary department, suggested Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters as something I might want to do with James Corden.
As it happens, I knew the play well. I played Truffaldino – James’s role – at school, very badly, in the full harlequin gear. I’d seen it a couple of times since, and enjoyed it, but had a strong hunch that I wanted to revitalise the conventions of commedia dell’arte, which are always in danger of becoming detached from their popular roots and floating off on a cloud of exquisite nostalgia. I wondered whether I could unearth common ground between the traditions of Italian comedy and our own popular theatre. The comic energy of not just the English literary tradition but of music hall and variety seemed to offer the starting point.
I suggested to Richard Bean an adaptation set in 1950s or 1960s Brighton that made nods towards end of the pier shows, Ealing comedy and even Carry On. I suppose you could say that the result reconciles a degree of literary critical analysis with a shameless determination to entertain, and that it, therefore, has something in common with our Ibsen and our Chekhov. But in the end it works because Richard Bean is a very funny writer and James Corden and his colleagues are very funny actors.
Between the two openings, I was in New York to raise funds and to go, on the National’s behalf, to the Tony Awards, where War Horse won everything it was nominated for. This made more tolerable the kind of occasion that I generally can only endure through a haze of alcohol. But it turned out that there was a lot that was enjoyable about the Tony Awards this year, starting with the quite brilliant host Neil Patrick Harris, once the child star of an American sitcom (Doogie Howser, MD) and now an actor who can really sing, really dance and is really funny. That cannot have been a journey travelled by many. There were some good acceptance speeches and some bad enough to be hugely enjoyable if received in the right spirit of quiet malevolence.
The night after the Tonys, a reception for the National was hosted by Vogue editor Anna Wintour with Suzie and Bruce Kovner, two longstanding and loyal supporters. Frances de la Tour performed Alan Bennett, Tamsin Greig performed Mark Ravenhill, and Vanessa Redgrave performed Shakespeare. I asked for money. Such is the philanthropic culture in New York that I felt less graceless than I might have expected. The National is lucky to have benefactors on both sides of the Atlantic who are deeply involved in our future. It is luckier still that, over the nearly 50 years of its existence, it has been the recipient of the kind of substantial public investment that makes it possible to produce the kind of repertoire of which American theatres can only dream.
Nicholas Hytner is director of the National Theatre, where he will give a talk on ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ on Monday