Rufus Norris must get regional to be properly national

Rufus Norris. Photo: Richard H Smith
Rufus Norris. Photo: Richard H Smith
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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In the exhibition at the National Theatre celebrating its 50th birthday, there’s a snatch of Yes, Prime Minster from the 1980s playing, in which the director of the National Theatre (played by John Bird) threatens the PM with embarrassing public criticism if he persists with arts council cuts.

The PM, Paul Eddington, counters with the suggestion that he could simply reduce the need to cut funding to the rest of the arts by selling the National Theatre so that the company becomes peripatetic – “truly a national theatre” – occupying different venues around the country to present its productions. There might be two or three in London, he offers. The rest of the arts sectror would love him for it. Needless to say, the NT director capitulates.

And that was 1988 - sends a bitter shiver down the spine now. But think about it, what is so wrong about a “truly national theatre” that is as familiar in producing houses around the country as it is on the South Bank?

Nicholas Hytner had his plan well nailed down when he started 10 years ago, to bring diversity and excitement to the National, and he started with a black Henry V to make the point. He has produced hit after hit so that the National Theatre has never been as successful as it is now.

His successor Rufus Norris has said he will make his own theme for his tenure, and we can expect it to be around what he himself sees his strengths to be: “I’m good at listening, I’m collegiate, I’m a collaborator” he said at the press conference announcing his appointment.

It’s through that collaborating instinct that he can create a “truly national theatre”, not through closing the building on which £70m of refurbishment money is currently being lavished, but through listening to what is being said and done beyond London, by being collegiate with the whole of the theatre community and by collaborating, and that means co-producing.

Conversations have been going on for at least half of the NT’s 50 years about the truly meaningful collaborative relationships that would be needed to make the National national, with regional producing houses. They have never happened.

Oh, there have been collaborations on touring NT productions, which the 10 regional houses in the Touring Partnerships have happily been part of to make touring financially viable.

There is talent being produced by the regional theatres to make your hair stand on end, both writers and directors, yet while the National has its presence through tours of, for instance, War Horse which has just gone on the road, none of them have been co-productions – productions where the different resources of a regional theatre and the National come together as equal partners to make something.

The worry is that, though the seeds of talents like War Horse’s Marianne Elliott were planted and grew in the regions, in her case at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, Norris’s entire career has been in London. Between now and March 2015 when he takes over from Hytner, he needs to spend time in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Cardiff and probably a dozen other places to get a feel of what being national really could mean.

Collaboration is not the national institution patronising the regional one and using its brand to make the product its own rather than properly shared simply to give the brand a regional presence, as so often happens in “collaborations” between regional museums and galleries and their national “partners”. There needs to be a genuine synergy, a will for both sides of a partnership to work together for the piece of work, not for the different purposes of either.

The truth is that co-production is what is making regional producing theatres viable. Genuine co-production is what can make the Rufus Norris’s National properly national.

 

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3 Comments

  1. The National Theatre of Scotland has a “Theatre Without Walls” policy with just such an engagement as you are outlining Simon…
    Maybe Rufus Norrish could nip round and have a chat with Vicky Featherstone.

  2. Bravo. Well said. 88% of the population do not live in London, so I fear that, so far, our so-called “National” theatre has really been just a London theatre. The touring policies of the RSC and now Shakespeare’s Globe put the NT to shame. You are right – the NT needs to establish close relationships with Regional powerhouses (like Tom Morris’s Bristol Old Vic) – the nourishment they could provide might help it grow into something truly National.

  3. It is not untrue that in times of reducing funding, co-production is helping to make regional producing houses viable, but what are we actually talking about here? If it’s the most common form of co-production, then it’s about money – shows being funded from more than one source – so if we’re effectively saying the National Theatre should be investing in regional productions are we not actually saying that the balance of public funding is currently wrong? That there is money apparently to be spared by the National Theatre that could be spent elsewhere? Surely it’s not the responsibility of the National to rebalance the funding map, but those awarding the funding in the first place.

    Or are we talking about artistic co-productions? In which case, are regional producing houses, which are often artistic powerhouses in their own right, really in need of that outside input? Or are we talking about touring policies? In which case, again, are regional producing houses really in need of visits from the National Theatre when the work they are currently producing to fill their programme is of such a high standard?

    It is true that “being collegiate with the whole of the theatre community and by collaborating” the National Theatre can somehow honour its brief, but there is as much to be said for the sharing of an astonishing infrastructure as there is of finance or artistic expertise. At Greenwich Theatre, for example, our box office software is subcontracted from the National Theatre, with their team supporting its operation. We run a system that we would struggle to afford without that support, but we maintain our artistic individuality and we make no direct financial demand on the National. The major funded players in the arts certainly should play a role in the national picture, not focusing the benefits of the funding solely on the capital, but it would be wrong to suggest that it is within their brief to redistribute funding (even if there is a strong argument for that redistribution to happen), and would risk becoming patronising to regional theatre makers to suggest that a touring show from the National is just what audiences in other regions are crying out for and what the National should be obliged to provide.

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