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In 2003, Nicholas Hytner revolutionised British theatre by taking over the ailing National and ushering in a golden age of iconic hits and affordable tickets. Fourteen years and a knighthood later, he’s poised to do the same for the private sector: his new, 900-seat Bridge Theatre is the first commercial theatre of its size to open in London for decades, and it promises to provide the comfortable seats, plentiful loos, delicious food and, above all, proper new writing that the West End so conspicuously lacks. It is proper fancy, basically, and opens this week with new comedy ‘Young Marx’.
Why go to all the effort of building a new theatre?
‘We didn’t really fancy the West End: there aren’t many theatres there that you really want to be in and neither of us [Hytner and executive Nick Starr] have a particular attachment to it, so we started thinking about building our own. There are sound commercial imperatives: 25 percent more tickets are sold now than were sold ten years ago – there’s certainly enough ticket buyers there.’
And why is it here specifically, in Tower Bridge?
‘It was a stroke of good luck. A lot of London developments have planning permission that insist on a degree of culture. Here, by good fortune, was something already built with 50,000 square feet – a big concrete void – looking for a tenant.’
Your opening play is Richard Bean’s comedy ‘Young Marx’, starring Rory Kinnear. Why that particular show?
‘Partly because it’s what was ready. Richard writes very quickly – if people had sat in the corner of the National Theatre’s green room and taken money on what we’d open with, they’d probably have said “a Richard Bean play”. But it’s a great collection of people I feel very happy working with, and if you’re going to make a play about the vast and often funny gap between real life and icon you couldn’t do better than go to Marx. He lived a brilliantly absurd life, gloriously self-centred and uncompromising and chaotic. It’s one of those ones where you don’t want to say what the plot is because it’ll make people’s eyes pop out.’
Are you here for the long-term?
‘Well you know, it’s a start-up, it’s “Dragons’ Den”, it belongs to us and our investors. Should it be on the list of theatres that the theatre crowd starts gossiping about the succession of? No, fuck off.’
If there was a new Alan Bennett play, would you expect him to give it to you to stage here?
Are you aware a Norwegian band called Sverm have a song called ‘I Am Sir Nicholas Hytner’?
[Long, incredulous pause] ‘Well, I’m not going to say I have never googled myself… I would have thought I’d have come across this.’
[Googles it – finds it on YouTube.] ‘Jesus Christ!’ [We listen to the thuddingly heavy Norwegian punk song together.]
‘I am completely thrilled! I could do without the “Sir” but I am thrilled. Thank you. The brilliant thing about being Sir in our world is that you can guarantee that whenever it’s used, it’s used sarcastically.