Rufus Norris: ‘I don’t know anybody in my field who isn’t their own harshest critic’
Sitting in the National Theatre foyer one Monday afternoon almost precisely three years ago, you might have been aware of a strange noise emanating from the Lyttelton Theatre. At the time, it was described by Nicholas Hytner – then in charge of the National – as “a roar louder than I’ve ever heard”.
The clamour was the spontaneous reaction of the theatre’s staff – assembled inside the Lyttelton – to the news that Rufus Norris had been appointed Hytner’s successor. It was accompanied by a standing ovation.
Despite having been something of a dark horse in the running for UK theatre’s top job, Norris was a popular choice both inside and outside the South Bank institution.
But, fast-forward three years to October 2016 and it’s not been an entirely smooth ride.
When Norris and I meet at the NT Studio, days before he announces his 2017 programme and about 18 months since he fully took the reins – he seems to have come to terms with the events of that difficult first year, describing the period with wry understatement as “quite a self-examining period of time”.
It was also a period during which he faced a fair amount of examination from the outside. Following the celebrated 12-year reign of Hytner and his executive director Nick Starr was always going to be tricky, but it was made all the harder when Norris’ chief executive Tessa Ross quit after only a few months in post and only a matter of days after Hytner had left the building.
It was an inauspicious start. And it didn’t end there.
Ten months later – in February this year – the Times attacked Norris’ programming in a diatribe by new chief theatre critic Ann Treneman, who took issue with the theatre staging a revival of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. She claimed, rather portentously for someone who had herself only been in the job for a few months, “the rot has to stop”.
Then, in May, a new ruckus emerged, when the Telegraph accused Norris of “taking revenge” on his critics by cutting back on the traditional free ‘plus one’ tickets for their guests. He was doing this, the newspaper claimed, after “a string of poorly reviewed shows”. A storm in a teacup ensued.
Brickbats have continued to be thrown, balanced out by positive voices – normally from the younger, more diverse, more experimental parts of the theatre ecology that Norris has made a point of embracing.
It’s not unusual for new artistic directors to have a tough time at the start of their tenures – just ask Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic or some of Hytner’s predecessors at the National – but Norris’ honeymoon period was particularly short. It is perhaps no surprise then that, when interviewed by the Observer this summer, the director said that one of the things he had learned in his first year was “to have a tougher skin”.
Underneath it all, I believe this is a useful way to spend a life, otherwise I wouldn’t do it, but that self-questioning is constant
In fact, Norris admits to me that he went through a serious period of introspection over the Christmas of 2015 – not just about running the National, but about his entire career.
He has always struggled, he says, to come to terms with the competing perceptions that people have of a life in theatre.
“On the one hand, I’m an incredibly hard-working and, until recently, pretty impecunious artist who is looking at the human condition or, on the other, I’m a wanky luvvie.
“Is this a valid way of spending a life? Is it ‘the great and ancient art of storytelling’ or is it ‘flouncing about in a costume’? I don’t know anybody in my field who isn’t their own harshest critic – there’s an awful lot of self-doubt. That’s not just about specific shows. It’s about whether the whole thing is valid. I do a show and then it disappears. The Threepenny Opera [which Norris directed] finished on Saturday. What have I got to show about it? Was that a useful way to spend a life? Of course, underneath it all, I believe it is, otherwise I wouldn’t do it, but that self-questioning is constant.”
As a child, prior to training at RADA to be an actor, Norris had wanted to be a zoologist. He admits, rather frankly, that it was only very recently that he felt that he’d made the right choice to pursue a career in theatre.
That moment of epiphany – if that’s not overstating it – happened early this year on a trip to the Good Chance Theatre, the pop-up community venue set up by a group of British artists in the Calais refugee camp known as the Jungle.
“Last Christmas, I was in a big period of self-doubt,” he recalls. “Wonder.land had opened. It did fantastic business and it played to the audience we built it for, but it got hammered by the critics and,” he pauses, obviously still slightly stung by the reaction, “we’re not made of iron.”
“I was spending the break at Christmas wondering why I thought I had anything to say. And I wasn’t very well because I’d been overworking. But I had recently gone to the Good Chance Theatre in Calais and I wanted my kids to see it. So my partner, my two boys and I went and spent the day there.”
While there, Norris met with a childhood friend who had gone on to become a volunteer at the camp, working with unaccompanied child refugees.
“She and I had taken very different paths through life, but we’d met, in the mud, in the Jungle, having not seen each other for decades. It was great, talking to this mate, stepping back and looking at our different paths. Of course, it’s great to think you’ve got a great career, and a nice salary, and this nice important job and everybody thinks you’re Billy Big Bum. But, all of that is meaningless unless you know why you’re doing something.
“Running the National is a great job. It’s not at all boring and I work with amazing people. I’m starting to enjoy it. But it’s fucking knackering. It’s really full on. There’s a cost. I was looking at some photos the other day for a couple of interviews coming up and sort of couldn’t believe them – already the last 18 months is written all over me in terms of how drawn and knackered I look. That’s not in any way a complaint, but what’s really crucial to ask is ‘what makes it worth it?’. What makes it worth it is getting in touch with what makes me sleep at night – why I think I’m here.”
So, what is that? Norris describes it as a “social mission”. He enlarges on the thought: “Of course, the National Theatre has to make great art – that’s its primary focus and I’ll either succeed in guiding us that way, or I won’t. If I don’t, somebody else will. But, maybe what I can bring to it is opening it out a bit more. I don’t want it to sound too grand because actually these things are just pragmatic. [Improving] representation is just a pragmatic thing. It’s really easy to talk about diversity targets – that’s clearly where we should be, if we’re a national arts organisation, so let’s get there. If we get there, that will have been a useful thing for me to do.”
Representation – the desire to make the National Theatre more representative of the country at large, both on its stages and in its audiences – is at the heart of Norris’ project at the National. It is also at the heart of Norris’ latest stage project, one of two productions he is working on in the new season.
Our Country is a direct response to the UK’s decision to vote to leave the European Union. Staff from the National have been sent out across the country to talk to people in their home communities about how they voted and why. Hundreds of hours of material have already been gathered and much more is still to come. Norris and the poet Carol Ann Duffy will turn this into a verbatim piece that will be staged in the Dorfman Theatre next year.
It has been conceived as a rapid response to Brexit and is, says Norris, about “jumping in at the deep end”. Duffy only agreed to come on board a few days ago. They are flying by the seat of their pants.
“We’ve got to embrace risk. If we want to be part of the national debate, if we want to expand the way theatre is perceived, then we’ve got to walk the walk. You can’t just talk about it, you can’t just bang the table and say ‘I think this’ or ‘I think that’ or give interviews to The Stage and expect anybody to give it credibility unless you stick your head on the line.”
So that’s what Norris is doing.
Q&A: Rufus Norris
What was your first non-theatre job? Working in an aquatic fish shop, cleaning the tanks. I went on to learn glass cutting and how to make fish tanks.
What was your first professional theatre job? Playing violin in a pit orchestra for the Hereford Operatic Society’s production of Paint Your Wagon.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? One of the reasons I wasn’t a good actor was because I couldn’t let myself go, so there’s something about being too proud on a personal level. Allow yourself to be more vulnerable. Embrace your vulnerability – it’s only you who is judging yourself. Get over your own vanity.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Remember that 90% of the decision-making is already done before you open your mouth because the director or writer, or combination of the two, will have an image which you do or don’t fit. There’s nothing you can do about that, so rejection is very rarely personal. Try to be flexible in auditions. Prepare, but if you get the opportunity to do something again, do it in a different way. I, as a director, want to be in a room with people who can play with me, so be playful.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I always wanted to be a zoologist but I wasn’t good enough at chemistry.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No.
“I wrote to Carol Ann literally a few days ago and said, ‘How about this for an idea?’. She sent me an email back, saying, ‘Oh fuck off… yes.’
“There has to be a space for quick response. This is the biggest story that’s happened to our generation, it will affect all of us, and it is crucially still being worked out now. If any of us – having watched our political leadership during the referendum and what followed – believe they have a coherent plan, then we’re naive. That means that it’s really important that we as a society discuss it. Now.
“Also, it’s important for London arts organisations to engage nationally with the division and the discontent that was expressed so clearly. It’s very easy for us to think we know best. But I’m not from London, my family don’t live in London. Post-referendum we went round the room going, ‘Remain, Leave, Leave, Remain…’ You realise that this is a big country with lots of opinions and those opinions are as grounded in personal experience and wisdom as anyone’s. They deserve to be engaged with.
“Theatre can be perceived as a liberal echo chamber – at times fairly, not always – but even if it weren’t true, if it were just the perception, it would need to be addressed.”
Norris’ desire for wider engagement takes many forms. As well as reaching out to the rest of the country – through projects such as Our Country, more touring and many more co-productions with regional theatres – he wants to broaden the type of audience coming to the National’s South Bank base and the type of people working there, both on and off stage.
“Our first duty is to do theatre really well,” he says. “That is not incompatible with greater representation, but there is a rigour that is demanded. We’ve got to take a long-term view. So, we’ve set diversity targets – in terms of black, Asian and minority ethnic representation, as well as gender balance and various other things – for 2021, because that gives us a little bit of time.
“For some of those targets we’ve had quite a good year – with female directors for example – and with BAME representation on stage we’re doing fine. But if we want to make this industry and this art form properly representative, that’s got to go from top to bottom. That’s from the board down to the ushers, the stage management, technical, front of house, everything.
“That opens up an awful lot of big questions that can only be addressed in the long term – through education and apprenticeships, all kinds of things. It’s not something we can do in isolation, but we can lead on it within the industry. There are many crafts and practices where we’re very lucky that we have the workshops, and we have the leading practitioners and it’s another way in which we can support the industry. Regional diversity is really important, class diversity is something that is referred to but very hard to measure. These things are as important. It’s a massive part of our mission, but it can’t hold back the quality of our work and that’s the challenge.”
There are a number of major UK theatres – not just the National – that have begun to move their programme away from more traditional offerings to something more experimental, younger, more diverse, bolder perhaps. Shakespeare’s Globe is an obvious example under Emma Rice’s leadership, but also the Bush, the Almeida, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, and many more.
Is there a danger that more traditional, core theatre audiences might feel left behind, or abandoned, in this pursuit of the new?
Norris insists not: “I’m not worried about it, because it’s not happening. If it was happening, I’d be very worried about it. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the thing that will get me fired is if I drive the company into financial peril. One of the scariest things on taking over the theatre was the extraordinary level of box office that Nick and Nick had taken the company to.
“So far, touch wood, we’re sustaining it at the same level while broadening the programme out a bit. And it’s not as if Nick only programmed Shakespeare and Alan Bennett – it was already very much heading in that direction.”
Just as it would be unfair to categorise Hytner’s programming as exclusively traditional, it would be equally unfair to describe Norris’ as purely experimental. There is plenty to satisfy more traditionalist audiences in the new season – Imelda Staunton in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Twelfth Night with Tamsin Greig, Olivia Colman in a new play by Lucy Kirkwood, for example. Before that there’s Amadeus and a new David Hare play: The Red Barn.
“What we’re trying to do is to continue providing a breadth of work that broadens out the theatre to fresh audiences on the one hand, but also gives our core audience stuff they can really relish,” he says. “And also really look to our national remit at this moment, which feels extremely important.”
Rufus Norris on…
…arts and education funding
It concerns me, particularly the wider theatre ecology beyond the National. It’s important that we make the case for the creative industries. When we’re talking to a government whose priority is to balance the books, we need to make the argument that the creative industries are of enormous financial benefit. London is a huge tourist draw, and all over the country our creative industries are one of few areas in which we remain world leaders.
That extends from making the case for the world-leading brands – such as the National Theatre – to our education policy and the fact that creative subjects are being pushed out the back door. No drama teachers are being trained anymore. One of my brilliant associates recently pointed out to me that if you’re doing a science subject, from the moment you start your first biology class to the moment you finish your PhD, unless you’re a genius, your teacher will have the answer to the question you’re looking at. In the arts, your teacher will never know. In terms of adaptability, as we go into this world, we don’t know what our kids are going to have to deal with. For them to be creative in their thinking is vitally important.
People outside the arts just think we suck up a load of subsidy. That’s a load of crap. We contribute massively and the more the chancellor, the government and the rest of the country understand that contribution, the more the arts will be given the respect they deserve.
… the imbalance between London and the regions
There is an imbalance of opportunity – not just in the arts. The referendum expressed that very clearly: there was a very strong anti-metropolitan and specifically anti-London feeling, which we can’t duck away from. We must address that as arts organisations. Whether the Arts Council can balance that kind of provision without penalising the organisations that are playing a major role in propping up the creative industries as a whole – that’s going to be the challenge.
… adventurous programming
When the Shed – later the Temporary Theatre – opened, I was looking forward to seeing the audience figures of, for example, 60% of people under the age of 30. That didn’t happen to the extent I’d hoped. But I remember having a conversation with one of our really senior donors, a billionaire, who you’d think would never be out of the plush seats in the Lyttelton stalls. Sitting in his uncomfortable little chair, he said: “This is my favourite theatre.”
Our core audience is often made up of the people who have embraced it the most. What is tricky is when you get a show that is clearly targeted at a different audience and they don’t feel it’s for them. We just have to say: “Well, everything can’t be for everyone.” By saying this theatre is for everyone, it doesn’t mean that everything is for everyone – otherwise we’d become generalised, khaki mush.
… not directing Follies
I was tempted, but I’m not sure how tempted Stephen [Sondheim] was with that idea. I’m tempted to do all of them, but I’ve learnt in the past 18 months that there’s a real price to pay if I direct too much. It’s important for me to keep engaged with artists by directing shows, but there are plenty of examples of theatre artistic directors who don’t – David Lan doesn’t, and he has a brilliant programme. The main job is not that.
That doesn’t mean an insular view, though. Notably, Norris has plans to bring Us/Them, a Belgian show Norris Spotted in Edinburgh into the Dorfman. Following on from Ivo van Hove directing Ruth Wilson in Hedda Gabler, it marks a notably more European flavour to the NT’s work.
“It was about time we started bringing some of these European companies over. It’s really important that we engage with the national part of our remit, but art has no boundaries and we are geographically a part of Europe. The Young Vic, the Barbican, one or two other places, have already done fantastic work bringing leading European artists over and I think that’s absolutely something we should be joining in with. There’s no reason why we can’t develop relationships with these top international artists while also looking at our national remit.
“If we want to remain at the top of the world rankings in terms of theatre, then we need to bring these people in – and I’m not just talking about the National, I’m talking about London theatre and British theatre. Being introverted is not the answer.”
I tell Norris that the first NT show I remember seeing was Robert Lepage’s 1992 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Olivier. He admits he’d love to have Lepage back at the National.
“I don’t know if he’s going to read this, but I’ve been looking for an opportunity to have a conversation with him for a while. If he reads this and wants to have a chat, I’d be delighted to meet him.”
As well as star directors, the National’s forthcoming seasons have some serious firepower on stage: Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Imelda Staunton, Tamsin Greig, Lucian Msamati, Olivia Colman, Ralph Fiennes and Ruth Wilson to name a handful.
“It feels like we’re expanding that out,” says Norris. “There’s a whole other world of actors that I feel we could be bringing into this place. The reality is they’re incredible actors, but it’s also one way to broaden your audience.”
That said, he is realistic about the level of technique required to play the National’s larger spaces.
“If you put an actor on the Olivier in a lead role who hasn’t done any stage work, they’re going to be vulnerable. I wouldn’t do that in a hurry. We have fantastic stage actors who we want to celebrate and bring on – Lucian Msamati in Amadeus is terrific and it’s a great joy to be part of watching him develop into the great leading actor he’s promised to be for a long time. Getting Andrew Garfield back from his stellar career over the water needed a great challenge and a great director [Marianne Elliott]. But once it was in front him,” he pauses and smiles, “it was like tickling trout.”
Interestingly, both shows that Norris will be directing himself in 2017 are in the Dorfman. Both Our Country and Mosquitos, Kirkwood’s new play set in Geneva around the opening of the Large Hadron Collider, will be staged in the National’s smallest space. He hasn’t worked there since his hit verbatim musical London Road, when the auditorium was still called the Cottesloe. All the rest of Norris’ work at the National – from his debut play Market Boy in 2006 to Threepenny Opera that closed that week – has been staged in the Olivier.
“It’s very easy for me to get into the habit of working in the Olivier,” he admits. “There aren’t a huge number of directors who really love that space. So, being one of them means that inevitably you think that somewhere in those five or six Olivier shows in a year, I should be doing one. But I’ve done three in the last 18 months and it feels like a good moment [to take a break]. I think I will do one in the Olivier in 2018.”
There is, though, still one space at the National that he has yet to direct in. Notably, it is the most traditional of the three auditoriums and the site of that noisy standing ovation three years ago: the Lyttelton.
CV: Rufus Norris
Born: 1965, Cambridge
Training: Acting, RADA
Landmark productions: Under the Blue Sky, Royal Court, London (2000), Afore Night Comes, Young Vic (2001), Sleeping Beauty, Young Vic (2002), Festen, Almeida (2004), Cabaret, Lyric, London (2006), Death and the King’s Horseman, National Theatre (2009), Vernon God Little, Young Vic (2011), London Road, NT (2011), Dr Dee, Manchester International Festival (2011) and London Coliseum (2012), Everyman (NT, 2015)
Awards: Evening Standard award for best newcomer for Afore Night Comes (2001), Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards for best director for Festen (2004), Critics’ Circle award for best musical for London Road (2011), Best film at the British Independent Film Awards for Broken (2012)
Agent: Nick Marston at Curtis Brown
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.