At an informal press briefing today to release the National Theatre’s Annual Report and Financial Statement for 2004-05 to the press, Nicholas Hytner was predictably pleased since they showed an operating surplus of some £674,000 on the year; but also urged caution: “We’ve had a year we won’t have again”.
That’s because the financial success was achieved largely on the back of two shows, in particular, that had a long life: The History Boys, that became “a box office phenomenon” (and the National jealously safe-guarded to itself, keeping it in the repertoire for over a year, and even next week hosting its return in an entirely re-cast production that will then go out on an 8-week national tour); and the return of His Dark Materials, that sold out for the second year running but the production costs of which were essentially already paid for.
Achieving a surplus isn’t, in any case, what the National is actually there to do: his job, his insists, is to spend the money they make or receive on the repertoire and operation (with half a million now earmarked to upgrade the front of house in the Lyttleton). But it could be useful in the event of a run of box office flops: all it would take to wipe it out, he reckons, would be a flop in the Olivier and a couple in the Lyttelton.
Hytner, who has just finished a 6-week shoot of a film version of The History Boys for the BBC (on a phenomenally low budget of just £2million) that retained the identical original stage cast, spoke of how helpful The History Boys has been to the repertoire, enabling them to run up to three plays in rep in the Lyttelton. The third Travelex £10 season – currently running to 93% capacity, with the final play of the programme, David Edgar’s new Playing with Fire, now in previews prior to opening next week – has “really worked” to fill the Olivier.
They’ve also already got a box office hit with Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years that opens in the Cottesloe tomorrow, and sold out all 16,000 tickets of its initial run before it had even been titled. Hytner, who says he has kept in touch with its development throughout its 18-week rehearsal process, finally only saw a run-through himself two weeks ago: “His plays only come together right at the end”. Why, in that case, were so few previews scheduled? (The first two last week were cancelled when it obviously hadn’t yet). “He’s a major film and theatre artist by any standards, and that’s what he asked for. I’d have liked more previews, but he thinks that once a play is there, it’s there.” Don’t despair if you haven’t got a ticket yet: there are plans to extend it in the repertoire, and it will definitely tour.