The National Theatre is at a crossroads: which way will it go?

Alexander Larman

Alexander Larman considers if it's time for the revered institution to take a new direction

27 November 2018 08:55

A beleaguered institution faces crisis. Its put-upon leader faces consistent criticism from the media, not helped by their relative lack of charisma and accessibility compared to their predecessor. High-profile resignations have rocked the boat from the outset, and the sound of knives being sharpened is never too far away. Even the odd unexpected triumph isn’t enough to keep this particular show on the road any more.

If the analogies between Theresa May and the National Theatre’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, seem tenuous – and politically, the two could not be further apart in outlook – then there is little doubt that, at the time of writing, both are in a dire situation indeed. May’s travails have been covered in great detail, on DRUGSTORE CULTURE and elsewhere, but the announcement of a new season for the National has revealed that, like the Prime Minister, Norris has few original ideas, and the ones he has are generally weak.

A look at the programme for the rest of the year and 2019 reveals a disturbing lack of imagination and vision. War Horse (Nick Stafford, 2007), a big hit for the NT under its previous regime, has been brought back, and Sondheim’s Follies (1971), one of Norris’ rare successes in the Olivier Theatre, returns again. There is a revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) – Churchill being, along with David Hare, Patrick Marber and Carol Anne Duffy, one of Norris’ go-to writers – and a new production of Tartuffe (1664), which has the bad luck to follow a much-acclaimed RSC staging that reinterpreted Molière’s fraudulent cleric as a fake imam.

It remains to be seen whether its adapter John Donnelly and director Blanche Mcintyre produce anything so subversive. Cate Blanchett makes a much-anticipated return to the stage, but rather than the great classical roles that she has played, to enormous acclaim, at the Sydney Theatre Company, she will be in an experimental studio play, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, ‘twelve variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740)’ by Martin Crimp and directed by Katie Michell. The chances of anyone obtaining a ticket are virtually nil, as seats are being allocated by ballot. Over and over again, there is the sense of a missed opportunity, of constituent elements in place, but no unifying and consistent vision. This, regrettably, must be blamed on the artistic director.

'Amadeus' National Theatre (2016)

Since he took over the National in 2015 (beating a rumoured joint bid by Stephen Daldry and the Young Vic’s David Lan), Norris has overseen a mixture of the very good and the very bad. The theatre’s showing at this year’s Olivier Awards indicates its pre-eminence: best actor for Bryan Cranston in Network (Lee Hall and Paddy Chayefsky, 2017), best musical revival for Follies, best revival and best supporting actress for Angels In America (Tony Kushner, 1991). All three received ecstatic acclaim, sell-out houses and a well-deserved afterlife; Network and Angels In America both head to Broadway, and Follies will delight (and fill) the Olivier Theatre once again next year. Yet all three are fundamentally American stories, with high-profile imported stars in Cranston and Nathan Lane in Network and Angels, respectively, and bear little relation to Norris’ mission statement of wanting to be in charge of a truly national theatre, one that spoke to a range of diverse audiences of all ages and backgrounds throughout the country.

The artistic director comes across in his public statements as a likeable man: intelligent, calm, thoughtful and considered. He has made it clear that he does not want to run the theatre in an autocratic or dictatorial fashion, but instead that he sees his role as being less a chief executive, and more of a chairman, who is willing to take on a range of views and perspectives in a democratic fashion, with the ultimate view of making his theatre the most artistically successful in the English-speaking world. All of these are laudable ambitions, even if they sit uneasily with the early departure of the theatre’s chief executive, Tessa Ross, who left in April 2015, purportedly because she believed that the theatre should only have one person in charge. Those with longer memories might note that the two Nicks – Hytner and Starr – did a fine job of running the National together, just as they continue to work harmoniously at the Bridge (which, admittedly, has its own problems).

Nonetheless, a brief list of the National’s out-and-out flops since Norris took over makes dispiriting reading. Even if one errs on the side of generosity and gives a pass to such productions as Everyman (Carol Ann Duffy, 2015) and The Threepenny Opera (Bertolt Brecht, 1928), there have been a series of disasters, usually on the problematic Olivier stage; Wonder.land (Damon Albarn, Rufus Norris and Moira Buffini, 2015), Common (D.C. Moore, 2017), Salomé (Yaël Farber, 2017), George and the Dragon (Rory Mullarkey, 2017) and Macbeth (William Shakespeare, 1606) all opened to dreadful reviews and, presumably, weak box office. While any artistic director will have unsuccessful productions, the consistency with which Norris’ flops have come – very much in battalions, rather than as single spies – has led to consistent speculation that his days at the National are numbered.

'Macbeth' National Theatre (2018)

One can mount a defence, namely that it is better to have ambitious new writing at the Olivier than yet another production of an old war horse (sic…), but the gulf between the success of Simon Godwin’s current staging in the main theatre of Antony and Cleopatra (William Shakespeare, 1606), starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, and the earlier failures is dispiriting. One has to feel especially sorry for the great Anne-Marie Duff, stranded in both Common and Macbeth. The failure of the latter, in which she was paired with Rory Kinnear, has to be put directly at Norris’ door, as he directed it. The fact that the post-apocalyptic production – ‘influenced by Brexit’, apparently – is dragging itself round the country on a seemingly endless tour feels more like a bad joke than anything else.

So, what is to be done? It seems unlikely that Norris will wish to stay in post much beyond 2020, unless something dramatic changes, which means that the search for his successor will officially start next year; it’s possible, of course, that it has already begun, albeit in the most low-key of fashions. Whoever is chosen will then be responsible for taking the theatre in an entirely different direction, presumably post-Brexit (should that regrettable event ever take place). Here are a few ‘modest proposals’ as to what the next artistic director – or even a rejuvenated Norris – should consider doing.

The next artistic director should be a woman. It is now near-obligatory for any major figure in the arts to suggest that diversity is at the heart of their institution, and it would be ridiculous for any national theatre to attempt to retreat back into a world where the primacy of the white middle-class male is upheld in every production. Norris made a big deal, upon his appointment, of being the first artistic director since Laurence Olivier who did not read English at Cambridge; while the cruel might suggest that a classical education would have helped with his staging of Macbeth, the theatre undeniably needs a larger pool of talent to choose from, starting with its next artistic director. Norris suggested that he would be delighted if a BAME woman took over from him; certainly, there is a growing, and justified, sense that the next leader of the National should be female. However…

It’s time to consider the unusual suspects. From Peter Hall onwards, it has been a given that the artistic director of the National should themselves be a leading director. Yet Laurence Olivier, who founded the NT, was best known as an actor, and to take someone out of an entirely different sphere (as indeed Norris’ ill-fated chief executive Tessa Ross was) could lead to fascinating and dynamic results. Michelle Terry was appointed artistic director of the Globe without ever having run a theatre, and the results have been bold and consistently surprising. Thus, one wonders what the likes of Mariella Frostrup, Freize’s Victoria Siddall or Cate Blanchett (the latter, of course, having been a distinguished co-director of the Sydney Theatre Company) might do if they were to be given the run of the place. One thing that I would hope for is…

More conservative voices. While Nicholas Hytner was right to say that the vast majority of plays about right-wing subjects are uninteresting as drama, it is consistently striking that none of the living writers whose plays have been staged at the National, with the partial exception of Tom Stoppard, could be remotely described as conservative. It is surely the role of a truly national theatre to encompass a cornucopia of political views, and – as I’ve written elsewhere it is important to reach out with as much assiduousness to young (or older) conservative writers, as it is to bring those from different racial, sexual or physical backgrounds into the fold. This might, of course, lead to nonsense and bigotry on the stage, but it is more likely to provoke, excite and challenge – which is, after all, why anyone goes to the theatre in the first place.

Bring back fun. In his memoir of his hugely successful time at the National, Balancing Acts (2017), Hytner is honest enough to say that ‘[the repertoire] felt like a serious, considered response to my brief: a substantial balancing act. But pulled as always in the opposite direction, I worried at the same time that it was all too worthy. An evil spirit whispered in my ear: boooring.’ Many of Hytner’s most significant successes – One Man, Two Guvnors (Richard Bean, 2011); The History Boys (Alan Bennett, 2004); London Assurance (Dion Boucicault, 1841) – were some of the funniest nights that I’ve ever had at the theatre, a combination of pitch-perfect casting and hilarious scripts. With the exception of the unexpectedly excellent The Beaux Stratagem (George Farquhar, 1707) early in Norris’ regime, genuinely fun plays have been few. There is no need for an endless stream of middlebrow Aldwych-style comedies; instead, it is time for a mixture of well-judged revivals of obscure plays (as with London Assurance) and new writing from established and emerging writers, that manages to say something about these strange times that we live in, and to make the audience laugh as it does so.

An end to the old boys’ network. Reading Daniel Rosenthal’s excellent new oral history of the National, Dramatic Exchanges (2018), it is striking how often plays – and often unsuccessful ones – were commissioned almost literally ‘on the nod’ by artistic directors desperate to retain the services of writers; this explains, for instance, much of the latter career of John Osborne. I fear that this still goes on. How else to explain the near-annual appearance of a new play by David Hare, like an unwanted pair of socks at Christmas? A new artistic director needs to clamp down on this lazy nepotism. In an ideal world, plays would initially be considered ‘blind’, meaning that a work by a 22-year old from Rotherham would have just as strong a chance of being staged as anything by the leading writers of the day. While this is difficult from a logistical perspective, it would help perceptions of the national theatre of Great Britain as being just that – a theatre for the nation, rather than dictated by a middle-class metropolitan elite. Of whom, alas, Sir David is an all too visible representative.

There are many more things to think about, of course. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Norris, perhaps with some informal advice from his predecessors Hytner, Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, changes course and leaves the National in a vastly better state than the (admittedly elevated) manner in which he inherited it. Yet if he does not, then it is time to look beyond his currently undistinguished regime towards a brighter and more daring future, under fresh and exciting new leadership. To that end, at least, comparisons between Theresa May (still Prime Minister at the time of writing) and Norris no longer seem so far-fetched. Let us at least hope, for his sake, that the theatrical equivalent of Brexit never takes place.