News & Opinion

The Tonys 2011

Broadway toasts British theatre as War Horse steals show at the Tonys

The Times

June 14, 2011

“Sir Nicholas Hynter praises brilliance of London’s creative exports”

They were conceived, written and performed in England and some doubted whether they could survive an Atlantic crossing — but British productions enjoyed a night of triumph at the Tony awards in New York.

The play War Horse, about a horse’s emotional odyssey through the First World War, which began life at the National Theatre, won five awards, including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play for Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Mark Rylance won Best Actor for his role as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, first performed at the Royal Court.

Sir Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre who revealed he was spending “two days pounding the streets of New York asking American arts philanthropists to support the National”, told The Times: “It’s remarkable the British plays that won last night have managed to overcome what must be a natural prejudice on the part of Tony voters to favour American productions.

“The British are successful on Broadway because we are challenging and distinctive. It’s a testament to British strength and confidence, derived from years of sustained public investment.”

Rylance’s acceptance speech, the recital of a poem, Walking Through a Wall, by the Minnesota-based poet Louis Jenkins, beguiled and baffled the audience at the Beacon Theatre and those watching on television.

Other big winners included the musical The Book of Mormon and the Aids play The Normal Heart, which won three awards.

But Sir Nicholas said that the kind of “challenging” British theatre that has won over audiences on both sides of the Atlantic was in danger of extinction if the Government’s cuts to the arts come to fruition.

He said that the National was able to withstand the cuts because War Horse, which will go on a US tour and is being made into a film by Steven Spielberg, had become such a strong source of income.

“The concern is what the landscape will be in 15 years when the effect of the cuts will become apparent,” he said.

“Will there be the new Mark Rylances being nurtured in regional theatres? Will new work be supported? These are the seedbeds from which you create these award-winning plays in London and New York. War Horse started life in our workshops and would have seemed like crazy self-indulgence, but public investment made its success possible.”

War Horse also won the Tony for Best Sound Design, and a special Tony was awarded to the South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company for outstanding artistry.

Best Scenic Design of a Play was won by the production’s Rae Smith, and Paule Constable, also of War Horse, won Best Lighting Design.

Accepting the Best Actor award, for which he beat, among others, Al Pacino (The Merchant of Venice), Rylance’s use of verse wasn’t unexpected. After winning the Best Actor Tony for Boeing-Boeing in 2008, Rylance recited The Back Country, another Jenkins poem.

Afterwards, Rylance said: “I feel kind of sad when I win things.” Of the poem, he said: “I bet most people understood it in many different ways, which was kind of the point of it anyway. It was the contrast of the poetry of Louis Jenkins and that system of awards — of winners and losers — that intrigued me as a piece of theatre.”In another British victory, the designer Desmond Heeley won the Tony for Best Costume Design of a Play for The Importance of Being Earnest. The Book of Mormon was the big musical winner. “We know what the Best Musical is, it’s such a waste of time, it’s like taking a hooker to dinner,” said the comedian Chris Rock, as he gave the award to its director, Trey Parker.