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A view of The Bridge

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, who had great success running the National Theatre, now have a new building to play with. Clemency Burton-Hill watches a stage being born

Clemency Burton-Hill | October/November 2017

On any given night, London’s 240 theatres offer 110,000 people the chance to experience new work, canonical classics and lavish musicals. It is the largest theatre audience in the world. Into this rich mix comes the first commercial theatre to be purpose-built in London for 80 years. Located on the south side of the Thames, next to Tower Bridge, The Bridge is the brainchild of two of the cleverest men in the business, Sir Nicholas Hytner and his longtime professional partner, Nick Starr.

It wasn’t so long ago that Hytner and Starr were transforming the publicly subsidised National Theatre (NT), just a mile or so west along this newly fashionable stretch of the river. As the NT’s artistic director for 12 years, Hytner oversaw such triumphs as “War Horse”, “The History Boys” and “One Man, Two Guv’nors”, while Starr helped introduce revolutionary initiatives including cheap ticket schemes and live global cinema relays that arts organisations everywhere have since adopted.

Now they are putting the finishing touches to a magnificent new 920-seat house that promises a distinctive offering. Although some classics, including Shakespeare, will have a place among the four or five shows to be staged at The Bridge each season, this is going to be primarily a home for new writing. Hytner’s heart has always quickened at a new play, and he has a track record when it comes to working with contemporary writers – not just stalwarts like Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppard, but plenty of young ones too, including James Graham, Lucy Prebble and Jack Thorne. When he talks his eyes gleam. “I’m interested in how those playwrights will write for a much larger audience in a well-designed theatre. My conviction is that lots of writers can do challenging and ambitious plays that have a really wide appeal.”

You’d be a fool to bet against him. “Nick [Hytner] is not just a brilliant director: he’s got a very good producer’s instinct,” says Simon Russell Beale, who has signed up to play Johann Sebastian Bach in a new play by Nina Raine. (The first season opens on October 26th with “Young Marx”, another new drama by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, starring Rory Kinnear.) “In fact the two Nicks have got this extraordinary nose for what will hit a contemporary nerve,” Beale says. “Nothing goes on stage that isn’t there for a reason.”

Does London need a new theatre? Hytner laughs. “Who is defining necessity? Does London need increased sewage capacity? Yep. And I’m very glad someone decides if we need a new water main. But I don’t think the same applies in the theatre.” Theatre audiences grew by 25% after Hytner took over the NT, “yet nobody has built a new commercial theatre since the 1930s. We thought that was worth examining and challenging. Does London desire a new theatre? I hope so. This is what we have judged, but if it doesn’t, we will close. It’s bracingly straightforward.”

Merely players

Nick Starr (left) and Nicholas Hytner

Hytner and Starr have sought no public subsidy or commercial sponsorship for The Bridge. Instead, they have raised around £16m through a private circle of benefactors and investors, some of whom have a background in the arts, others from the hospitality sector. “We are not looking for donations, so everything has to work within a business context,” says Hytner. They are modern incarnations of those canny entrepreneurs – Shakespeare included – who first built theatres along the south bank of the Thames 400 years ago. Will this mean inflated entry prices? In the West End, you can now pay over £200 for a ticket. “Our top price seat will be £65 with a few premium seats at around £90,” he reveals. “We have a Young Bridge scheme for the under-26s and there will always be plenty of £15 seats: nice and close to the stage, too, not just up in the fourth gallery.”

Ah, those galleries. West End playhouses, most of which were built during a boom in the late 19th century, have their glories but also their limitations – including, famously, a shortage of toilets (especially for women) and scant legroom. They also, says Starr, “enshrine a kind of theatre built for a particular class structure that wanted to put the poorest people up in the galleries and give them separate entrances.” With the luxury of building a theatre from scratch, albeit within a larger development that also includes residential and commercial space, The Bridge’s architects Haworth Tompkins have been able to investigate the optimum 21st-century relationship between stage and audience.

“Ideally, in a theatre,” Starr says, “you want lots of people sitting in comfort, close to the stage. You want actors to not have to look up too high; you want the room papered with faces, tight above each other so the masonry and structure doesn’t take up too much of the vertical plane.” The result is a modular, fully flexible auditorium fabricated in folded steel, which delivers structural strength with great lightness and thinness. “It is”, says Beale, “a dream.”

When the launch of The Bridge was formally announced early this year, some were quick to suggest that Hytner’s successor at the NT, Rufus Norris, should be worried. But Hytner rejects any suggestion he is setting up a rival. “The National are totally cool about it,” he says, a claim that is substantiated by everyone I speak to at the NT itself. “Ninety percent of their repertoire we wouldn’t touch anyway, because we can’t. And my taste is not Rufus’s; his taste is not mine. This is not a challenge to the National, it’s a challenge to the centuries-long notion that commercial theatre can only exist in the West End.”

“Which is one big punt,” admits Starr. At present, 85% of theatres are in inner London; the borough of Westminster accounts for 39% of capacity, with more than 50 venues. But The Bridge’s arrival couldn’t be better timed. To this born-and-raised Londoner, the south bank of the river has never felt so alive, so animated. There’s music, drama and visual arts galore. The transport system is now tip-top. Bermondsey Street gives Hackney and Shoreditch a run for its money when it comes to hip boutiques and terrific places to eat and drink, and Borough Market is just a few minutes walk away. Its cooler younger cousin, Maltby Street, boasts some of the most inventive cuisine to be found in the city – including an outpost of Fergus Henderson’s St. John, which, Starr tells me with glee, will be providing freshly baked madeleines for the interval of each Bridge production. (“The smell!”)

Since Hytner and Starr signed their 100-year lease on the building, more than ten restaurants have followed suit, including a new outpost of The Ivy, a theatrical favourite from Covent Garden, which boasts truly spectacular views. No wonder the hospitality industry wanted in. “Well, theatre is chic again, isn’t it?” muses Beale.

And what of Brexit and the uncertainty that looms over every endeavour, creative or otherwise, in these liminal times? “One of the many horrendous ironies about Brexit is that I suspect London – which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU – will come through,” Hytner says, caustic about the politicians who got Britain into this position but sounding a note of cautious optimism for the capital’s economic resilience. Does theatre have a role to play in promoting a degree of solidarity, given the febrile climate? He pauses to consider before replying. “Theatre can do all sorts of things,” he says, finally. “It isn’t always as elevated as the claims made for, say, classical music. It doesn’t always bring us together. It can cut against the grain, it can be rude and scabrous and cynical. And it can be both healing and enraging. But the very fact that every night 900 people gather to be healed or enraged, and to know that their response is being solicited, creatively, and that they’re being asked to extend sympathies and challenge preconceptions – that is all part of theatre’s mission.

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