After the kind of heated speculation that could either be seen as a) befitting a national theatre as a widely-discussed public good, or b) a London-centric PR sideshow in lieu of any real discussion, Rufus Norris has been announced as the sixth boss of the NT in the fifty years since Hall, Olivier, Lasdun et. al. hauled up the Southbank’s national emblem amidst so much optimism and controversy.
At one point more than fifty individuals were being gently probed by the Succession Committee, while paraded through the media like so many princes awaiting a patricidical nod were names such as Michael Grandage, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes, and Danny Boyle. A dual-directorship was floated in case the candidates thought there was something better to do than take on the 5 year minimum commitment, but there was no indication that the NT was considering such an arrangement. What followed was a series of people demurring from candidacy, such as Tom Morris of Bristol Old Vic, Dominic Cooke recently departed from the Court, and Associate NT director Marianne Eliot.
Norris trained as an actor at RADA before switching to directing because he was “too gobby”, going on to take charge of Arts Threshold, a now-defunct tiny fringe theatre in Paddington, which would lose its home under Norris to become Wink Productions, the director leaving in 2000. As he disclosed in a recent interview with the Guardian Norris was 36 before he earned “more than £10,000 a year” from working in theatre, praising “stamina” as the chief virtue required of his job.
In 2001 he directed a revival of David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come at Young Vic and went on to win an Evening Standard Best Newcomer award, becoming an associate director at the theatre from 2002-2007. Crossover came with David Eldridge’s adaption of Festen which transferred from The Almeida to the west end in 2004 with a subsequent Broadway run. His Broadway production of Les Liasons Dangereuses would accrue 5 Tony nominations in 2008. In 2011 he collaborated with Damon Albarn on the opera Doctor Dee for the Manchester International Festival, the same year in which he was appointed an NT Associate, where he has been responsible for both the largescale in Amen Corner and the brilliantly innovative in London Road which last year he described as the highpoint of his career thus far.
This sort of adaptability (the biggest myth about being a director according to Norris: “that you have a vision”), combined with no obvious hit-making director-writer relationships (he has worked with David Eldridge three times on Under the Blue Sky, Festen and Market Boy; debbie tucker green on Two Women and Dirty Butterfly, and his partner Tanya Ronder on a number of projects), a strong hand in internationalism and limited experience in the administration and helming of a big organisation, make him a potentially exciting and somewhat unmappable appointment.
A quick poll round Exeunt editors and we’re broadly happy with it. There was a sense that something may have been avoided in the shape of Edward Hall, a late front-runner, whose tenure at Hampstead has been decidedly mixed. Looking across the Thames toward Vicky Featherstone’s profound reinvigoration of the Court, the idea that a prior life-without-buildings could well be a strength is one we’re keen to entertain. Not being educated at Cambridge seems like a pretty revolutionary concept. The absence of Shakespeare on the CV stands out, and perhaps with a rebounding RSC what used to be a bone of contention might be usefully filleted (an RSC residency such as the one coming up at The Barbican might usefully concentrate Bardic energies). Of course, we’ll be keenly looking at the main stages for long hoped-for signs of life, checking to see how much of the vibrant, rejuvenating ethos of The Shed makes it into the building; how the commercial imperatives play out in the west end and NT Live. And of course bringing you criticism of each and every NT production until the Thames swallows us all.
Rufus Norris will succeed Nicholas Hytner in April of 2015.