Friday, March 27, 2015

Talking heads

The hottest ticket of this year's Oxford Literary Festival saw one national treasure, playwright Alan Bennett, in conversation with the director of another, National Theatre head honcho Nicholas Hytner, in the venerable surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre - a very Oxford venue in that it's old and aesthetically spectacular but also stiffly formal and uncomfortable for spectators. Perched up in the front row of the upper gallery, I couldn't see Bennett at all and could only see Hytner's head if I craned forwards - though I did get a decent view of fellow audience members Armando Iannucci and BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz.

Hytner was nominally the interviewee and Bennett the interviewer - the former commenting on how strange it was for the boot to be on the other foot for once, though the latter was endearingly remiss in his duties and probably only asked one question. Instead, the Bodley Lecture was a largely informal chat full of anecdote and the warmth of firm friendship between two men whose long-term partnership has been absolutely central to British theatre over the last two or three decades.

To describe them as playwright and director/producer doesn't quite do justice to the nature of their collaboration. Personally speaking, it was a revelation to hear quite how much involvement Hytner has had in shaping the plays, even if only by offering vague or general comments on early drafts that were then taken on board by Bennett (such as was the case with both The History Boys and The Habit Of Art). Where Bennett has felt that certain books or stories were unstageable due to particularly important elements (the train in The Wind In The Willows, for instance), Hytner has been on hand to offer reassurance and take care of the logistics. (Interestingly, though, Bennett admitted that mention of War Horse opened up a bit of an old wound as he actually turned down doing the adaptation partly on the grounds that he couldn't see how it could be satisfactorily staged).

There was much talk of forthcoming film The Lady In The Van, the pair's most recent collaboration. Telling the extraordinary tale of the eccentric Miss Shepherd who lived in her van parked on Bennett's driveway for 15 years, it's based on the West End play of the same name from 1999, which in turn emerged out of a piece that appeared in Writing Home. Bennett was at pains to correct anyone who believed the initial invitation he extended to Miss Shepherd was out of selfless charity - on the contrary, he did so because when the van was parked on the street, people would regularly bang on the sides to disturb her and thereby disturb Bennett from his work too.

The film stars Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith, whose performances and talents had both men in raptures. Hytner expressed his wonderment at the intuitive and magical ability of actors to bring a script or even just a line to life and imbue it with new or alternative meaning, but declared himself equally in awe of and inspired by the skills of some of the directors he's worked with during his time at the National. Prior to taking up the position, he admitted to thinking as though he'd gone a bit stale, but as a producer, freed from any feelings of competition and rivalry towards other directors and instead wanting them to do the best job they possibly could, he revelled in the opportunity to learn new things and look at directing through fresh eyes.

Hytner's last day as director at the National is today, and he leaves behind a legacy of major productions, commercial and critical success, and improved accessibility for those who are not normally non-theatregoers. One audience member, understandably, wondered what the future might hold - but Hytner played his cards close to his chest, alluding to a new project but reticent about divulging details in case it doesn't end up happening, to spare his blushes.

As for the man sat alongside him, you can be fairly sure he won't be appearing on stage in person again - he expressed a horror of it, and particularly of the obligation to hold lines in your head at a time of life when the memory is beginning to fail. His talk of regularly being able to write only the first 20 minutes of plays before they fizzle out prompted one anxious audience member to ask whether this might possibly mean no more plays. Thankfully, though, Bennett assured us otherwise - apparently, the 20-minute barrier is something he's crashed into all his writing career, and it's not just a recent symptom of age.

As this was the Bodley Lecture, and in recognition of his "outstanding contributions ... to the worlds of communications and literature", the evening ended with Hytner being awarded the Bodley Medal - in true Oxford style, fashioned out of copper salvaged from the original roof of the Bodleian Library. However, as Bennett quipped right at the beginning, they're both guaranteed theatrical immortality regardless of their own achievements, having played a small part in the inexorable rise of James Corden...

No comments: