The final curtain for National Theatre’s double act Sir Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr

Hytner and Starr tell Nick Clark why their decade-long partnership on the Southbank has transformed its reach and appeal

It’s a job that left even Sir Laurence Olivier scarred. For this greatest of thespians, his reign as director of the National Theatre was often consumed by politics, and it ended amid claims of jealousy and betrayal. Richard Eyre, too, had difficulties in the role. Yet after just over a decade in charge of the Southbank institution, Sir Nicholas Hytner seems remarkably at ease as his own tenure nears its end. The difference? “Well they didn’t have Nick Starr,” he says.

Tomorrow the pair will jointly receive an award for outstanding achievement at the Olivier Awards for their stewardship of the National, The Independent can reveal.

The success of the “Two Nicks” partnership between Sir Nicholas and Mr Starr, who has overseen the National’s commercial programme as executive director, is credited with turning the UK’s largest subsidised theatre into a multimedia entertainment company. Cinema screenings and cheap tickets have expanded its audience, and productions such as War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors have found worldwide popularity.

“The secret of our success is that the things that bore or panic me really excite Nick,” says Sir Nicholas, who has shaped the artistic direction of the theatre since 2003.

But Mr Starr has another theory about Sir Nicholas’s ability to deal with one of the most taxing jobs in theatre. “Nick is very, very tough,” he says – and Sir Nicholas agrees with this judgement. “You have to have a hard edge in this business: you can’t mess around,” he says. “You have to deliver value for money.” Behind the director’s twinkling demeanour is a steel core.

He has won several Oliviers for his stage direction, including an award for The History Boys, but they are not visible in his office. “I’m not a great displayer,” says Sir Nicholas. Nor will he make a big show when he leaves, to be replaced by Rufus Norris in April 2015. There won’t be a huge leaving party, maybe just the traditional director’s departure drinks in the Olivier Theatre. After all, anything grander is likely to be a damp squib after the National’s 50th anniversary celebrations last year, which brought back hundreds of people who had worked on stage and behind the scenes for a gala evening.

“I am not getting nostalgic about leaving; it’s not what I do,” says Sir Nicholas. He maintains this line even while considering the prospect of his final production, a new play by Sir Tom Stoppard. “I’m not sure the last night will register in that sentimental way,” he says. “And Rufus may ask me back at some point.”

It is different for Mr Starr, who has overseen the National’s commercial programme during the same period. “I am preparing for massive nostalgia and sentiment,” he admits. “This will be very significant for me. I’ve spent so much of my working life at the National.”

The National Theatre announces Rufus Norris as their new Director with effect from April 2015 The National Theatre announces Rufus Norris as their new Director with effect from April 2015 (Alex Lentati/Evening Standard)
Perhaps it is his partner’s candidness that finally causes Sir Nicholas’s mask to slip. “I’m doing my best to say I won’t be sentimental, but of course I will. I love this place. I love hanging out at the back of the stalls of all three theatres, and watching other people’s run-throughs.”

But asked if he would follow the example of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United by making his presence felt from the stalls as his replacement begins work, Sir Nicholas recoils in horror. “That would be a terrible analogy; I don’t throw boots literally or metaphorically,” he says, before adding with a smile: “And Rufus is no David Moyes.”

Fortunately, his successor appears to have been chosen more smoothly than Olivier’s replacement, Sir Peter Hall, back in the 1970s. Mr Norris, who has directed productions including London Road and The Amen Corner at the National, was announced as Sir Nicholas’ successor last October, giving him more than a year to come to terms with the huge task that awaits when he officially starts in April 2015.

The theatre recently announced the appointment of Mr Starr’s replacement – Tessa Ross, who joins as chief executive from Channel 4 – and once the Two Nicks are out of the door they plan to continue their partnership. But they remain cagey about the details, saying only that they have in mind a venture in commercial theatre.

“What we are working on is something that will work as a business. We’re just not there yet; it’s quite ambitious,” Sir Nicholas says.

A scene from the stage production of 'War Horse' A scene from the stage production of 'War Horse' (Simon Annand)
“The idea is more than a production company,” adds Mr Starr. “If it were a production company it would be easy for us to tell you, ‘This is its name and this is the kind of slate.’ There is going to be that, but we wish to be a little bit bigger.”

There may also be side projects along the way. Sir Nicholas has directed film adaptations of The History Boys and The Madness of King George and he admits he could be tempted back under specific circumstances.

“If Alan Bennett were to write a screenplay, I would direct it,” he says. “But I don’t make movies the way Danny Boyle makes movies. It’s not my language the way it is his. But if Alan were to step up to the plate again, I’d hope to be there with him.”

One benefit of leaving the National, Sir Nicholas says, is that “people will stop asking my opinion about things”. He has been critical of the Government’s stance on the arts in the past, and still has plenty of views left: he remains vocal about the increased pressure on regional performing arts groups because of the cuts to local authority budgets.

“I was not a fan of Jeremy Hunt. I don’t think they got off to a good start, and they made unrealistic promises. Hunt didn’t deliver.” Still, he concedes of the Coalition: “They came into power with an economic platform to reduce spending across the board. As it happens I don’t agree with their policies, but that’s barely relevant.”

Sir Nicholas’s big idea when he joined was a season of £10 tickets, and those continue to bring in new audiences. The pair leave with another big idea in the works – NT Future, an £80m project to overhaul the inside and outside of the theatre.

A scene from 'One Man Two Guvnors', starring James Corden A scene from 'One Man Two Guvnors', starring James Corden (Johan Persson)
The project has been driven by Mr Starr and the National’s chief operating officer Lisa Burger. “People see us as a double act, but really we are two of three,” Sir Nicholas said. “Lisa spearheaded NT Future. People have no idea how good that is going to be.”

Reflecting on their time in charge, Mr Starr is proud that the “digital revolution” means the National is still “expanding artistically and in terms of audiences”.

Sir Nicholas, meanwhile, says that he likes to think he has led a “big, warm institution”. Excited by their post-National plans, he is looking forward to the Oliviers tomorrow but hopes the evening will not be seen as the beginning of the end.

“I think it is really nice to be given a pat on the back by that particular group of our peers,” Sir Nicholas said. “But it’s not a lifetime achievement award. If it was I would give it back.”

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