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Rufus Norris must get regional to be properly national

Rufus Norris outside the National. Photo: Richard H Smith Rufus Norris outside the National. Photo: Richard H Smith
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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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