As the National prepares to embark on the second half century of its life, it has today finally announced the identity of its sixth director: Rufus Norris will take over the reins from Nick Hytner in April 2015.
Hytner’s will be a tough act to follow – but Norris, who is a currently one of his associates, will also happily inherit a theatre in its strongest artistic, financial and physical health possible.
And Norris is also a extremely astute choice, with a strong taste for the adventurous and ground-breaking, like the most radical and original British musical of the century so far, London Road, that he premiered at the National two years ago; but he is also as brilliant at old musicals like the current touring Cabaret (that he first did in the West End in 2006) as he was at turning the film Festen (with playwright David Eldridge) into one of the single most shattering events of my theatregoing life (first at the Almeida, then in the West End). He is also much beloved of actors who work for him: several have told me in the past that he is the single best director they’ve ever worked with.
Norris is an extremely astute choice
It’s probably no accident that, like Michael Grandage, Jonathan Kent and Daniel Evans, he trained as an actor first, and at today’s press conference cheekily suggested there is no other way to become a director! He has, in the process, become the first director of the NT since its founding one Sir Laurence Olivier to have been actor; and he is the first since Olivier also not to have been educated at Oxbridge first.
He’s taking on quite a legacy. It’s difficult to imagine life or London theatre without the National Theatre. It has been with us for only the last fifty years as a formally constituted entity — first at the Old Vic and Chichester, then in its purpose-built home on the South Bank — yet it has changed forever the shape and identity of the way theatre is made in the UK under a subsidised imprint.
It has always been more than just a building but the embodiment of an idea and ideal; and its successive artistic directors (Norris will be only its sixth) have grown and developed it to the point where it can now, justifiably, boast in its Annual Report that it is “surely the busiest theatre in the world.”. In short, it has more than proved value for money; it may receive largest state grant of any UK theatre, but the money goes back into the work — which in turn makes money for the theatre.
Now it has a truly global reach; War Horse — still a West End hit at the New London and already playing across America and Australia on tour — has just launched a new UK tour that I’ll be reviewing in Birmingham tomorrow. It’s also opening this week, too, in Berlin in its first foreign-language outing. Michael Morpurgo’s story, already filmed for the big screen by Steven Spielberg, will also return to the cinema on February 27 when the National’s production is broadcast live from the New London to venues around the UK and the world as part of NT Live.
In the 2012/13 financial year, NT Live reached some 1.25m people at 260 cinemas and 350 abroad, helping the NT to globally reach 3.6m people with its productions. It also has three productions currently running in the West End: War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors (still at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and a Tony winning hit on Broadway last year), and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (at the Apollo), while a fourth — Untold Stories — also transferred there last year.
Despite a significant drop in Arts Council funding that will amount to some 23% in real terms by the financial year after this one, it has generated record income in the last year of £87m — well over double that of ten years ago.
All of this phenomenal growth and success has been achieved on the watch of Sir Nicholas Hytner and his executive director Nick Starr, who together took over the theatre ten years ago.
Now as Norris prepares to opens a new chapter in the National’s extraordinary life, I can’t wait to see what happens. Meanwhile, Hytner recently confirmed to me that he and Starr are “going to continue working together after we leave the National,” just as Hall set up his own independent company after he left the NT. But it won’t only be a platform for Hytner’s own work, he stressed: “Both of us have too much of a taste for helping people we admire to do the kind of work they want to do in the right way and we want to go on doing that.”
Hytner could once again be breaking the mould for how the West End operates. And just as the National on his and Starr’s watch became their own commercial producers for transfers there and to Broadway — which means the NT took the risk but also the rewards of success from doing so — so the new company they are setting up could provide a radical new model.
Meanwhile, too, they will leave the NT transformed inside and out: the theatre has also raised some £80m to embark on a major regeneration project NT Future that it is in the midst of transforming the theatre physically. There’s already a new riverside shop and cafe, and new workshops and a new paint frame are soon to open, with the Cottesloe — now renamed the Dorfman — set to follow in the middle of next year.
The National is, thank God, here to stay. Even as Hytner has become a valiant spokesperson for the integrity of regional theatre from which he and all his predecessors emerged, he has also — with Starr and chief operating officer Lisa Berger — ensured that the theatre he leaves behind is also fit for its incredible purpose as we move forward into the next 50 years.