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Life after the Nicks at the National

11 February 2015

London Calling takes a look at Rufus Norris' leadership of the National Theatre after Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr have departed

‘Is life after ‘the Nicks’ all downhill?’ asks The Stage, a few days after Rufus Norris presented his first season as the new artistic director of the National Theatre to an expectant audience. It might be a loaded question, but it’s also a fair one. From an early stage in their double act, it was clear that outgoing artistic director Nicholas Hytner and chief executive Nick Starr would make it difficult for their successors to outdo them.

After twelve years as its artistic director, Hytner leaves behind a National Theatre that’s very different from the one he came into. Taking over from Trevor Nunn in April 2003, one of his first and most successful schemes was the introduction of large numbers of reduced price tickets. It proved an insightful move that has helped fill up the dauntingly large Olivier theatre even at the unlikeliest of times. The lower prices, combined with the more diverse and often risky programming, also lured NT newbies to the Southbank. Elmina's Kitchen, set on the Hackney Murder Mile, drew large numbers of black East Londoners; at Hytner’s own direction of Henry V starring Adrian Lester, a third of the audience had never visited the National before.

Under Hytner and Starr’s leadership the NT produced shockers and crowd pleasers. Jerry Springer: The Opera, in which Jerry plays host to Jesus and Satan on his show, gained instant notoriety with its satirical take on religion and its alleged 3,168 mentions of the word ‘fuck’. On the other hand there were family friendly box office hits like War Horse, which is still playing in the West End, on Broadway and in countries like South Africa and Germany.

As a play, War Horse was a success in cinemas as well as in theatres, thanks to the NT Live programme that was introduced in 2009. Selected performances at the National, and occasionally at other theatres, are filmed and broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and around the world. The project has not been without controversy, but its steadily increasing popularity certainly offers a lot of potential for the future, providing an extra source of income as well as opportunities to extend the National’s reach.

So that’s what the incoming artistic director inherits: a National Theatre that, for the first time, really tries to be national; a taste for technological opportunity; and an audience that can handle a bit of experimentation. In his first season though, Norris doesn’t seem keen to put that last one to the test. As most theatre critics have already remarked, his offerings so far look respectable and safe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Norris and co-head honcho Tessa Ross clearly have a vision of a National Theatre that truly ticks all the boxes. The new programme is a pleasingly balanced mix of classical repertoire and new writing, with a well-deserved increase in the latter. There’ll be Shakespeare and Brönte, but also Alice Birch and Caryl Churchill. Norris will be showcasing his commitment to both categories in his own directions as well; first at the helm of the fifteenth century classic Everyman, then working on wonder.land, a new musical by Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

The latter show will be a co-production with Manchester International Festival, which draws attention to another interesting aspect of Norris’ vision: a ‘commitment to regional relationships’. Although it’s certainly beneficial to Londoners, there can’t be any doubt that so far the National Theatre has been less national than it ought to be. Touring shows and NT Live are steps in the right direction, but Norris and Ross are evidently looking to speed things up. Apart from wonder.land theatregoers can also expect co-productions with solid partners like the Bristol Old Vic, the Royal Exchange in Manchester and touring company Headlong.

Solid partners will be found within the organisation itself as well: both Marianne Elliott, of War Horse fame, and Ben Power, responsible for the 2014 adaptation of Medea, stay on as associates. Fresh faces Paule Constable, Tom Morris, Dominic Cooke and Lyndsey Turner might be new to the team, but are all established names. At least for now then, the signs point towards a tenure that will be characterised more by quality and solidity rather than by adventure and experiment.

But who knows what else Norris might have hidden up his sleeve? And in any case, no one is really expecting him to follow in Hytner’s footsteps. As the man himself so eloquently said in an interview with Michael Billington, ‘it's not like Rufus has to fill my shoes. I'm taking my shoes with me.’

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