Andrzej Lukowski: The National’s Olivier has two duds running – should we worry?

Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo in Common at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Andrzej Lukowski
Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London
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I thought National Theatre boss Rufus Norris was looking a bit knackered when I saw him across the room on the opening night of the NT and Headlong’s ambitious new drama Common. A couple of hours later, I was pretty sure I knew why.

Common, by DC Moore, is a total mess of a play. It definitely has its merits and I liked quite a lot of things about its demented stew of folk-horror, political allegory, melodrama and linguistic experiment. But my heavily qualified three-star review for Time Out is not going to turn it into a hit: audience word-of-mouth is terrible and, as I write this, all the other reviews I’ve seen have been much, much harsher than mine.

Duds happen: what may be weighing especially heavily on Norris’ shoulders is the fact that Common is running in the Olivier theatre, the National’s biggest auditorium, and that the other show it’s running in rep with, Yael Farber’s Salome, has also had terrible reviews.

I’m hoping nobody is going to start writing think-pieces about Norris’ leadership again: for starters, the NT still has a thumping hit in Angels in America, and the upcoming Follies, Network, Mosquitoes and Oslo all seem like pretty surefire successes, plus there are rumours of a transfer for Nina Raine’s Consent. But at the very least, there is a financial implication for everyone hating the only two shows currently on in your largest theatre.

Not that Norris should be let off entirely. In Nick Hytner’s recent memoir Balancing Acts, it’s made apparent that Norris’ predecessor would wade in if he didn’t think a show was up to snuff, while Daniel Rosenthal’s epic book The National Theatre Story is littered with productions that had their opening night delayed for whatever reason. I’m sure Norris was no passive spectator, but at the same time I’m surprised that neither play was delayed (especially Common, which had a preview cancelled).

Is this a nadir for the Olivier? Not even slightly. Richard Eyre had a terrible time with the impractical indoor amphitheatre, describing it as being like “a watering can that’s difficult to put water in”. He personally directed four Olivier shows that played to below 50% financial capacity and his disastrous 1994/95 season is seen as being the reason that the NT’s biggest theatre essentially functioned as a musicals house for much of the second half of the 1990s.

I don’t think that’s going to happen again any time soon (even if it is worth noting that the Olivier does in fact have a summer musical banker in the form of Dominic Cooke’s Imelda Staunton-starring revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies).

Actually, the truth is that Norris can probably take heart that he’s done at least as well as most of his predecessors. Olivier, ironically, didn’t have to deal with it. Peter Hall was gifted a barely functional room with bad acoustics and a faulty drum revolve. Eyre went some way to fixing the technical problems (though hands down my favourite bit of Rosenthal’s book is the story about set designer William Dudley discovering in 1988 that the drum had been fixed by in-house engineers some years previously, but “we didn’t want to tell anyone in case they used it”). But this didn’t stop him programming a string of flops that essentially led to the musicals-focused Trevor Nunn era that so sapped the NT’s credibility.

By contrast, Norris, always a master of spectacle, had already directed three Olivier productions when he took over the NT. He has since directed three more: Everyman, The Threepenny Opera and even the ill-fated musical Wonder.land all showed him to be a man completely comfortable in the sprawling open stage. He is probably in fact the first and only NT artistic director who seems to prefer it to the Lyttelton.

So why has he managed to programme two flop shows at the same time?

I think possibly part of the issue is that Norris is so big a fan of the visually epic that he has allowed that to be the Olivier’s USP. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it’s certainly notable that both Common and, in particular, Salome look absolutely incredible while still being pretty bad. According to Rosenthal, the theatre used to be called the “giant killer” on account of the A-listers who’d flopped in there, but these days the big names tend to either hide out in the more conventional theatres or simply give themselves over to being part of spectacle (there are notable exceptions, not least Michael Longhurst’s magnificent Lucian Msamati-starring production of Amadeus). Naturally at home in the Olivier as he is as a director, I’m not sure Norris has done as much as I’d have expected to challenge the sense that the NT’s biggest space is also its least essential.

While it feels like a cliche to invoke Saint Nicholas Hytner as an example of How Things Should Be Done – lest we forget, he also programmed some right old shit – he undeniably stormed into the Olivier with an electrifying vision at the start of his reign: five shows over six months, same set, all tickets £10. Despite being a rollicking success, that didn’t last. But one of Hytner’s great legacies is putting an end to boutiquey Shakespeare productions and insisting that the playwright’s work is exclusively seen on the biggest stage, something Norris has upheld – though one does suspect that this limits the number of directors up for a crack at it.

Ultimately, it’s easy to point out the problems with Salome and Common and very difficult to write and direct work for a theatre that is almost universally regarded as a bit of a nightmare.

It’s Norris’ responsibility to ensure the work is up to snuff, but I think part of the glory in Common’s failure is that it is so totally audacious, and the silver lining to Salome is that it does genuinely look remarkable. There will probably always be more misses in the Olivier than the Lyttelton and Dorfman, but there is something heroic about the attempt.

To misquote Theresa May: the Olivier is a bloody difficult theatre.

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