This September the National Theatre return to us with One Man, Two Guvnors. Seen by more than one million people worldwide, the show is a glorious celebration of British comedy. The National’s Artistic Director, and director of this production, Nicholas Hytner looks back at how it all began.
In 2011, we had a very grim repertoire – it was serious with no laughs. This seemed like a bad idea, particularly during the summer months.
It’s always been the National Theatre’s aspiration, and certainly mine, to have a repertoire that covers the whole spectrum of what the theatre can offer and something purely entertaining seemed like a necessity. None of my colleagues were up for looking for something purely entertaining and comic and I rather enjoy doing that kind of thing so I volunteered myself for that slot.
I remembered an old play called The Servant of Two Masters by the Italian commedia dell’arte playwright Carlo Goldoni. The reason I knew the play so well was that I played Truffaldino (the character who eventually turned into Francis Henshall) at school.
I was very bad. I can remember being required to somersault because the director of the school production wanted it done in classic commedia style. He was determined that the harlequin should be acrobatic and I was a very fat, clumsy child and teenager and absolutely couldn’t cartwheel or somersault. I nevertheless had to, and these elaborate arthritic somersaults were part of a performance which had its moments but was essentially not very good and not very funny.
So I read the play again and thought it had funny bones but was not in any of the faithful translations funny enough. I also thought that the way to bring it alive was to get James Corden to play the central role. James had been in The History Boys at the National and in Gavin and Stacey, but had fallen out of favour and was lost in TV quiz show land. James agreed to be in it and I asked the playwright Richard Bean to make a version because I knew that one thing that would not interest me was a production in the old eighteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte style.
I had this hunch that the traditions of low Italian comedy were essentially the same traditions of low English comedy. I think that probably pratfalls and low physical comedy about the traditional comic subjects of greed, money and sex are global. They spring spontaneously from what the human race finds funny. There is no tradition, particularly no low tradition, which doesn’t find lust, drunkenness and greed funny.
So I asked Richard Bean to transfer it from eighteenth century Venice to post-war Brighton. I reckoned Brighton and Venice, as far as this play was concerned, were interchangeable. A lot of the Italian comedies take place in Venice which was a very louche city – a city you went to for a dirty weekend. It has been a party city longer than any other European city. It ceased to be an influential and significant centre for European trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and became a tourist or carnival city.
In The Servant of Two Masters, the protagonists escape from Turin, the big city, and hole up in Venice where inevitably funny and complicated things happen to them. Brighton’s relationship to London is much the same. It’s a place with lots of hotels, far enough away from London that you might easily disappear into it if you are on the run from the law. It’s a place with seedy picture comic post-cards.
Brighton felt right, as did various English comic traditions like variety, end-of the pier farce, Ealing comedy and Carry On films. They all felt like they were coming from the same place. So I floated all these ideas to Richard Bean. I’m not quite sure if we were talking 1940’s Brighton, 50’s Brighton or 60’s Brighton. He eventually alighted upon the early 60’s Brighton – around the time that sex was invented…according to the Philip Larkin poem. 1963 was the year he suggested – between the Lady Chatterley trial and the first Beatles LP.
And right from the first draft it felt like it would work brilliantly. We had various readings. The first reading was quite sketchy, but lots of ideas from the very first reading ended up in the play. They came from a group of very funny actors sitting around a table reading and discussing the text and working out what to do with an ancient waiter (Alfie) who behaves like a rubber ball.
Alfie was there in Richard’s first draft, and everything else that happens in the play’s climactic first act where Frances has to serve dinner to both his masters emerged in that first workshop reading. The other thing that emerged was that we needed someone to take care of the physical comedy and that was never going to be me. It’s not my area of expertise. I can’t even turn a somersault. So I asked Cal McCrystal, who is a great master of physical comedy to come on board and help come up with the great physical routines in the play.
I was also able to give the designer Mark Thompson a very clear brief – the style of the show was going to be out of variety and end-of-the pier comedy.
Even though the production was originally created around James Corden, there have now been several brilliant casts who have made the play their own – this now includes Gavin Spokes and our touring company.
One Man, Two Guvnors is at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury from Monday 29 September – Saturday 4 October. A limited number of discounted Discovery Tickets are available for anyone aged 16-26 years or full-time students (over 16 years).