Traditionally, a theatre has always played an essential role in the life of human society. It was one of the most popular arts, and it remains quite favorite for many people in different countries, regardless a tremendous technological progress the humankind has made in recent years that seemed to put the theatre under a threat of gradual degradation. Nevertheless, the theatre as an art is still popular and keeps progressing in many countries of the world.
In this respect, it is particularly important that the theatre keeps progressing in the UK, the motherland of one of the most outstanding play writers of the world and undoubtedly the best English speaking play writers, William Shakespeare. It is particularly noteworthy that the theatre has been recognized as a national treasure of the United Kingdom that found its reflection in the creation of the Royal National Theatre of London, one of the most important cultural institutions of the kingdom and probably of Europe and even the world.
In fact, it is very important that the theatre has received the status of the Royal National Theatre because it underlines its significance for the whole nation. This is why it is necessary to trace the history of creation and development of the Royal National Theatre and its current position, perspectives, and the role of British society.
The history of the creation of the Royal National Theatre
Speaking about the Royal National Theatre of London, it is primarily necessary to dwell upon the history of its creation because it is very important to realize what was the reason for the creation of the theatre and what was the initial goal of its creators. This will obviously provide ample opportunities for better understanding the nature and the role of the theatre for British society.
In this respect, it should be said that physically the Royal National Theatre is a relatively new formation because of its historical accounts a bit more than forty years since the date of its foundation. It should be pointed out that the idea of the creation of the Royal National Theatre was not new and it appeared not fort but much more years ago. In fact, it is estimated that the idea of the creation of the National Theatre originates from late 19the century, but it is hardly possible to define a precise date when this idea had been shaped and had got started to develop.
Nonetheless, it is possible to refer to William Archer and H. Granville Barker who in the early 20th century, to put it more precisely in 1904, in their Preface to a National Theatre underlined that “… the National Theatre must be its advertisement – must impose itself on public notice, not by posters and column advertisements in the newspapers, but by the very fact of its ample, dignified, and liberal existence” (1907). They defined its basic goals as follows: “It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London… It must not even have an air of appealing to especially literary and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community… It will be seen that the theatre we propose would be a National Theatre in this sense, that it would be from the first conditionally – and, in the event of success, would become absolutely – the property of the nation” (Archer and Barker 1907, p.5).
It is obvious that the National Theatre was initially viewed as the theatre for large masses of people, as a popular theatre that would be accessible and understandable for all; that would attract people to the art and spread the culture into masses. In fact, it is possible to estimate that the Royal National Theatre was thought of as a theatre that could be a cultural core of the nation.
Gradually, these ideas were developing and eventually they had been realized on October 22, 1963, when the National Theatre headed by Laurence Olivier started its work with the opening night of Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole. This date is traditionally considered to be the date of the foundation of the National Theatre of London, which was later attributed as the Royal National Theatre of London in 1988.
The main events in the history of the Royal National Theatre
Since the date of its foundation, the Royal National Theatre has faced some peaks and troughs, but the theatre is still accessible and may be proud of its history. In this respect, it worth to mention that despite its relatively short history, starting with 1963, there have been produced over 600 plays, and nowadays there are over 1,000 performances a year, given by a company of 150 actors to over 600,000 of people (Callow 1997).
It is quite remarkable that the Royal National Theatre started in premises at the Old Vic and it did not have a new building as well as it did not receive a new building as it had been initially promised. In fact, the National Theatre did not have a permanent home until 1976, when Denys Lasun’s National Theatre building was opened (Callow 1997). Probably, the latter fact was also a result of the change of the director because in 1973 Peter Hall “took over the dictatorship” (Cohen and Smith 1997, p.301) in the National Theatre. It is under his run the National Theatre of London, and in 1976-1977 the Theatre opened its new buildings in the South bank of the Thames. And only more than a decade ago, in 1988 the National Theatre got a new name. This year the name of the company was changed to the Royal National Theatre of London (Callow 1997). But it is not only the name that was changed but so was the director. As a result, in 1988 Richard Eyre took over as a director of the Royal National Theatre. He was later succeeded by Trevor Nunn in 1997 and Nicholas Hytner in 2003.
Nowadays, the Royal National Theatre “engages many of England’s talented actors, directors, and designers to produce its repertory of classics and modern plays” (Hunkin 2004, p.106). Among its most successful performances that made the Royal National Theatres of London recognizable all over the world may be named Cats, Les Miserable and many others.
Nonetheless, it still worth to mention that the problem with the permanent home the theatre lacked at the beginning of its existence, was not the only problem the Royal National Theatre faced. There were also problems concerning the popularity of the theatre and sometimes the lack of innovations that often put the theatre into crises that marked the change of its directors. Not surprisingly that the recent years were marked by often changes of the Theatre’s directors compared to the past years.
Nicholas Hytner as an Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre
It should be said that the appointment of Nicholas Hytner as an Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre was the result of the stagnation of the theatre and the obvious necessity of changes that were vitally important for further development of the theatre. At the same time, Nicholas Hytner was perceived in different ways as a director of the Royal National Theatre of London.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to underline that he realised his mission and the role of the theatre for British society. For instance, at the beginning of his work in the Royal National Theatre, he emphasized that “it is a great time to be a national theatre and to rise to the challenge to living up to our name. We want to tell the stories that chart the way the nation is changing. We want to bring front-line reports from new communities and generations, and we want to see the present redefined in the context of the past” (Hunkin 2004, p.59). In such a way it seems that he understands the challenges the theatre faces in the current situation. As a result, he initially planned to adopt the theatre to the current needs of the society that was changing. It is an undeniable fact that nowadays, British society is getting to be more heterogeneous, more diverse, and it tends to be rather multicultural that the theatre should take into consideration.
On assessing the role of Nicholas Hytner for the Royal National Theatre and its progress, it is necessary to point out that his work is highly controversial. On the one hand, he tends to be innovative and appeals to use new original forms but, on the other hand, his policy is considered to be too radical that often leads to conflicts and even the protest of some part of the audience.
To better understand such a situation and the position and policy of Nicholas Hytner, it is necessary to draw some examples and basic concepts of his policy. For instance, Nicholas Hytner underlines the importance of the theatre at large and the Royal National Theatre in particular as educational tools that should be accessible for British children, which as he states ‘are robbed.’ In other words, the new director of the Royal National Theatre estimates that “a cultural apartheid is being created in which children from state schools are missing out on theatre and art” (Hunkin 2004, p.152).
In this respect, it should be said that, to a certain extent, he is right because children from state schools are deprived of a possibility to get acquainted with art and theatre because of the lack of funding. As a result, the “pillars of British culture” (Hunkin 2004, p.166) remain a kind of terra incognita for the vast majority of British children.
However, on the other hand, what would the British children, which Nicholas Hytner cares so much about, see in the Royal National Theatre headed by this Artistic Director? One of the basic concepts of his policy is the idea that the theatre should be offensive since, according to him, “the Western theatre was invented in Athens precisely to put on stage feelings that were too dangerous to experience in real life” (Hunkin 2004, p.218). Not surprisingly that he considers that offense in a way is a part of the theatre.
As a result, it is possible to speak that such a concept seems to be too radical for the director of the Royal National Theatre of London and in such a context the recent protests of the Sikh community eventually resulting in the closure of a play are quite logical and demonstrate the degree of radicalism in the policy of the new Artistic Director.
The predecessors of Nicholas Hytner and difference in their policy
However, despite certain radicalism that seems to be typical for the policy of Nicholas Hytner, he is a successor of the policy started by his predecessors. In fact, his primary motivating factor is the necessity to sustain the development of the theatre and keep its popularity among people. In other words, the Royal National Theatre should progress and remain close to ordinary British people, understandable and interesting for them. Not surprisingly that “Hytner’s approach to the theatre will not be seen like a million miles away from that of his predecessors” (Hunkin 2004, p.322).
Nonetheless, there are some differences if not in the policy then, at least in the objectives Nicholas Hytner faces compared with his predecessors. For instance, it is not a secret that Trevor Nunn, the producer of famous Cats and Les Miserable, “became the centre of controversy for his decision to stage so-called extravagant, commercial production in the theatre” (Hunkin 2004, p..325) while one of the main tasks of Nicholas Hytner’s policy is to prevent the Royal National Theatre of London from commercialisation and the increase of the role of commercial productions. By the way, business productions have always been used by the directors of the Royal National Theatre to make this institution more financially independent and stable. And this is probably the main difference between Nicholas Hytner’s strategic goals and his predecessors.
The role of the Royal National Theatre for British cultural life
Apparently, it is difficult to underestimate the part of the Royal National Theatre in the life of British society. It is even possible to estimate that the theatre is a cornerstone of the cultural life of the British society because it sustains the uniqueness of the national theatre, art, and culture at large.
Naturally, nowadays the Royal National Theatre has to overcome the resistance that the new pop culture poses before traditional British theatrical art. In fact, it is hardly possible to deny that the contemporary society is characterized by an extremely high level of consumerism that affects the attitude of people to the theatre and art at large. In such a situation the Royal National Theatre of London seems to be a rare exception from general rules of the consumer society which appreciate primarily the artistic success and not commercial one.
Furthermore, nowadays British society and the Royal National Theatre face new challenges such as the spread of new cultures in the UK resulting from an increasing number of immigrants from different countries of the world. As a result, the UK becomes an unprecedentedly multicultural nation where different culture should live in harmony, and in such a situation the role of the Royal National Theatre is hardly possible to underestimate since art has power to unite people, regardless their ethnic or racial differences, social status, educational level, etc.
My mission statement for the Royal National Theatre
Taking into account what has been just mentioned above, it is possible to define the perspectives and the primary goals the Royal National Theatre should achieve in the nearest future. If I managed to gain such a public and national recognition that I could become the Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre of London I Would primarily define the primary objectives, which should correspond to the current social and cultural changes that take place in the British society.
In this respect, I believe that one of the main goals of the Royal National Theatre is to sustain its basic principles, according to which the theatre serves to the interest of ordinary people and it should involve possibly larger audience in order to promote art both classical and modern, make it more accessible for people without changing its cultural value. In other words, it is necessary to develop traditions of British theatre as a branch of art and the Royal National Theatre should be a kind of a beacon for the broad audience and for other shows that are currently too commercialized. At the same time, it seems to be inevitable that in perspective the Royal National Theatre would absorb rich traditions of other cultures that are currently growing in power in the UK, such as Indian for instance, and eventually, the theatre would contribute to the harmonization of the new multicultural society using art.
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Archer, William and Granville Barker Harley, A National Theatre: Scheme and Estimates, Duskworth: Routledge, 1907.
Callow, Simon, The National: The Theatre and its Work, London: Nick Hern Books/Royal National Theatre, 1997.
Cohen, Norma and Joseph Smith, Theatre Works: A guide to working in the Theatre, London: Royal National Theatre and the Theatre Museum, 1997.
Hunkin, James F., Changing Faces: A Decade at the Royal National Theatre, London: Oberon Books in association with the Royal National Theatre, 2004.