The National Theatre has responded to an open letter signed by more than 200 writers condemning the omission of any female playwrights in a recent programme announcement.
The theatre said that while the line-up “didn’t fully reflect our commitment to the nation” it felt it was making “substantial progress” towards achieving 50:50 gender parity among living writers by 2021.
The original letter, whose signatories include Timberlake Wertenbaker, Zinnie Harris and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, highlighted other theatres as institutions that “trust” female writers, citing the West End transfer of Emilia from Shakespeare’s Globe and a dominance of women playwrights in the Royal Court’s season.
In their response, joint chief executives Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger said: “We’re thrilled that more work by women is being staged in the West End. Emilia is one shining example of that, but the Olivier award-nominated Nine Night and Home, I’m Darling, both transfers from the National Theatre, should surely be equally celebrated.”
They also argued that in its role as a national organisation, the NT has a duty to stage classic plays, for which the canon is overwhelmingly male, alongside new works, but said it had “set clear targets to affect positive change and are on course to meet them”.
We’re writing in response to the open letter on the subject of female playwrights published by The Stage this week. We are, as ever, happy to be challenged and we recognise that our most recent announcement of upcoming shows didn’t fully reflect our commitment to the nation on our stages.
What is a reflection of this commitment is that the next four productions to open at the National Theatre are all written by women. In the next few months we will be announcing more new work by female playwrights including two new plays in each of the Lyttelton and Olivier theatres; women’s voices will dominate our stages for the first time in the National Theatre’s history.
We are making substantial progress by staging more new work and revivals by women in all our theatres. We have absolute faith in them, as indeed we have in other female creatives – among them the 10 female directors helming shows on the South Bank in 2019.
We’re thrilled that more work by women is being staged in the West End. Emilia is one shining example of that, but the Olivier award-nominated Nine Night and Home, I’m Darling, both transfers from the National Theatre, should surely be equally celebrated.
We’re also touring work by women across the country as part of our drive to increase our national reach: Home, I’m Darling is followed later this year by A Taste of Honey.
As the National Theatre, alongside new writing we have a duty to stage plays from the canon – much as the RSC and the Globe have a duty to stage Shakespeare. Because of the historic gender imbalance that canon is overwhelmingly composed of plays by men, but we have set clear targets to affect positive change and are on course to meet them. By 2021, 50% of the work we stage by living writers will be written by women and 50% of all productions will be directed by women. That aim is supported by our New Work Department commissioning more new work by female playwrights than ever before.
New work and a breadth of voices are the lifeblood of theatre, and we are investing at scale in supporting both.
Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger
Joint chief executives, National Theatre