There's no doubt that Nicholas Hytner, acclaimed director of Miss Saigon and the The Madness of King George and new director of London's National Theatre, is very winning. We are lunching in London at The Connaught, a place that still commands a certain sense of awe, and he is as thrilled to be eating here as if he were . . . well, an assistant being given a Christmas bonus. At age 47 he may be technically middle-aged, but with his lean frame, big ears, and sloping Spaniel eyes, you would never know it. There's still something of the restless child about Hytner, fidgeting in his chair, answering politely, and eating sparingly (no wine, no pudding).
It's the eagerness, too. Theater may no longer be for him the transcendental and mysterious experience it was ("I now always notice the cogs moving," he says). "But theater still offers an escape into a world that is more alluring than the one one really lives in," he says. "I still get something out of most every theatrical experience."
We're booked into Menu restaurant at The Connaught, a room recently renamed and beautifully restored. Designer Nina Campbell has somehow managed to make it look fresher and yet unchanged (a combination that is not easy to pull off). I worry that I should have chosen The Grill Room for its time-honored dishes like blinis with caviar and smoked salmon or roasted venison. But Angela Hartnett—the first female chef in Connaught history—has put together a fantastic menu very much her own: chilled pea soup with langoustines and guacamole, smoked pork belly with summer vegetables, potato tortelli with rabbit ragout, and swordfish and tuna carpaccio. Hytner opts for mozzarella, marinated tomato, and toasted bruschetta to start, then pan-fried sea bream. I order asparagus with fried duck egg and the lamb with celeriac purée and spinach.
Having mulled over the menu, we now mull over why theater matters and what Hytner hopes to do with the National. It matters because, among other reasons, theater is a way of reexamining and engaging with the world. Iraq, for example, loomed large in his recent production of Henry V. "A charismatic young leader commits his troops to war. The risks are huge, the cause debatable, bloodshed certain," says Hytner. When the National was founded, in 1963, there was no confusion about what either "National" or "Theatre" meant; today both words are loaded, often contentious. Hytner's agenda is to lower seat prices (for half of the year, two thirds of the seats cost only $15) and to bring in a new generation of actors and writers. When it comes to audiences, he challenges the thinking that young is good and middle-aged is bad. "We mustn't judge the success of an artistic enterprise by its ability to pull in an Officially Approved Crowd," he wrote recently in London's Observer.
Theater is, after all, about entertainment; it's about that suspension of disbelief ("it started with men in masks," he reminds me). And when he's finished with the National, Hytner says, he wants it to be accessible. "I hope lots of people will have had a really good time."
No doubt they will. This fall's productions include old favorites like Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, His Girl Friday, and Chekov's Three Sisters as well as buzzing new titles like Jerry Springer—the Opera. "The greatest perk of the job," says Hytner, "is that I get to choose the plays." Well, he's got a lot do. My task, on the other hand, is simple: to polish off this heavenly orange tart with mascarpone sorbet. Prix-fixe lunch at Menu, $80. At Carlos Place, London; 44-207-491-0668. No doubt they will. This fall's productions include old favorites like Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, His Girl Friday, and Chekov's Three Sisters as well as buzzing new titles like Jerry Springer—the Opera. "The greatest perk of the job," says Hytner, "is that I get to choose the plays." Well, he's got a lot do. My task, on the other hand, is simple: to polish off this heavenly orange tart with mascarpone sorbet. Prix-fixe lunch at Menu, $80. At Carlos Place, London; 44-207-491-0668.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity.
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