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A New London Theater Aims to Stage a Revolution

Part of a glossy new development, the theater looks on to two of the city’s most recognizable landmarks: Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.

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The theater opened with a new play, “Young Marx,” with Rory Kinnear, center, in the title role.

Credit
Manuel Harlan

It’s two miles to the east of London’s “Theaterland” but it is a world away from the cramped facilities of the West End’s Victorian venues, with their restrictive proscenium arch layouts. The Bridge’s auditorium is fully flexible. The stage for “Young Marx” extends into the audience; the audience sits on three sides, with seats raked over four tiers. Yet the space feels remarkably intimate, and even the cheap seats — costing under $20 — have decent sightlines.

Critics, lukewarm about the play but effusive about the venue, have been quick to point out the irony of opening London’s first wholly new, large-scale commercial theater in 80 years with a play about an critic of capitalism. Yet the theater is attempting to, well, bridge the usual approaches of the commercial and subsidized sectors in the UK.

For starters, it’s largely dedicated to new writing — a notoriously tricky sell at the box office. Few untested plays open in the West End. New writing can also suffer from a reputation for dry worthiness, a notion Mr. Hytner aims to dispel.

“New writing doesn’t have to be a ghettoized, virtuous thing,” he said. “These are new shows that aim to communicate widely. And if we’re ever going to find a ‘Curious Incident’ or ‘The History Boys,’ they’re going to be new things.”

Mr. Hytner also insisted that there is a big audience out there. “They flock to the shows they want to see,” he said. “A lot of them musicals, quite a lot of them not.”

Indeed, a raft of plays have transferred from subsidized theaters to the West End in recent years — including new writing from venues such as the Almeida (“Ink”; “King Charles III”) and the Royal Court (“The Ferryman”; “Hangmen”) as well as the National.

“New writing is always risky, but the work has been so good, audiences are more receptive now,” said Nica Burns, a West End producer who credits the increasing collaboration between subsidized and commercial theaters. “This is why we have such a healthy theater, with so many plays in the West End compared to Broadway.”

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At the National Theater, Mr. Hytner proved to have strong commercial instincts, tripling the organization’s annual income.

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Richard Saker/Contour by Getty Images

The Bridge’s investors seem convinced that if an appetite for bold new plays has been nourished by thriving government-funded theaters and a culture of transfers, they can be originated in a commercial venue in the first place. The £12 million, or about $16 million, construction costs were raised upfront from venture capitalists.

But the model is based on the two Nicks’ experience running a building, and they’re deliberately swerving away from the more usual path of renting a theater.

“A West End producer puts up all the money, takes all the risk, and because there are so many fighting for relatively few theaters, they have to take the terms you’d expect,” Mr. Hytner said. He added that they don’t get the revenue from “the bars, the programs, the ice creams. I know from the National that the profit margin on ice-cream is something you want to keep!”

Owning the Bridge means Mr. Hytner and Mr. Starr have the opportunity to rake those retail profits in. But crucially, it also means they’ll avoid the particular pressure of budgeting on a show-by-show basis.

“We don’t have to show a return on every single play,” Mr. Hytner said. “It’s a cash-flow business. That graph can go up and down quite considerably, but if we play at over 75 percent we’re doing brilliantly. That’s not even really a target because if, say, ‘Julius Caesar’ plays to 95 percent it doesn’t really matter what the plays either side of it do.”

Such long-view financial flexibility will allow Mr. Hytner and Mr. Starr to program the work they like: “theater which is ambitious,” as Mr. Hytner defines it. And there’s surely another lesson from the subsidized sector: To be ambitious, you have to be able to afford to fail sometimes.

Mr. Hytner is evidently relieved to have shrugged off the burden of overseeing a national institution, however. “Everybody knows what a National Theater should be, what the repertoire should be,” he said. “The fact is that everyone, of course, knows differently.” Now, he is free to do as he pleases — just so long as what pleases him pleases the audience.

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