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Features Published 16 November 2017

The Olivier: Some Modest Proposals

As the National Theatre struggles to find a hit to fill its biggest stage, Exeunt's writers suggest some ideas of their own.
Exeunt Staff
Saint George and the Dragon at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

Saint George and the Dragon at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

Saint George and the Dragon, the National Theatre’s current main house show, reduced Exeunt’s reviewer Fergus Morgan to apoplectic fury.  “Oh no, not again. Didn’t we just do all this, like, a few months ago? Didn’t we sit through the interminably boring, bizarrely staged, epically sprawling, state-of-the-nation allegory-play already this year? Do we really have to do it again?” Even if 2017’s other new Olivier commissions, Common and Salome, didn’t inspire you to the same furious heights (they’ve all had their fans) it looks like Rufus Norris is having some trouble finding a new hit to fill the NT’s vast, notoriously giant-killing, thinkpiece-spawning space. So we’ve brainstormed some ideas, silly and serious, for what to do with the UK’s biggest subsidised stage.

All-night on-stage raves
The lights and sound are good enough, presumably, and the drum revolve could add the occasional retro revolving dance floor vibe. DJs to start after the shows, meaning the National can make a bit of extra money and still stage misguided state-of-the-nation epics. Do two-for-one tickets and you might even get a bit fruitful audience crossover. It’d support London’s beleaguered nighttime economy – no neighbours in adjacent luxury flats to moan about bass wobble, surely?

Plus how good would watching the dawn over the river from the National’s nice balconies be?

One rule must be strictly enforced, however: no Gen X directors, including Rufus, allowed to ‘have a go’ on the decks, even if they do think they totally have the tracks to transport us from Rattigan revival to rave. (Holly Williams)

Give the people what they want
They should turn it into toilets for the other two auditoria. That or bear-baiting. (Fergus Morgan)

Create an onstage occult laboratory
The entire space should be converted into a powerhouse of an occult laboratory – think CERN but for the arts – with a gigantic Hadron Collider-style seance going on to call up the spirit of Sir Lawrence Olivier. A 60-strong team of specialists, including but not limited to necromancers, hedge witches, city witches, sand witches, wizards, users of magic who spell it magick for whatever reason, druids, Hogwarts truthers, warlocks, warkeys, warlatches, magicians with advanced diplomas, mediums small and large, psychics, DnD enthusiasts, people who wear a lot of black eyeliner and sarcastic Twitter astrologers, will work round the clock, in shifts, to keep the summoning spells active. Members of the public are permitted to watch the work in progress between 12pm-5pm Monday-Friday and 12pm-9pm on Saturday (Sundays by appointment only). A ticketing system will be in operation but concessions will be available for students, the over-60s, recipients of Universal of Pension Credit and that one goth girl the head druid really fancies. Under 16s will not be permitted during any part of the rituals which involve sorceresses dancing around without their knickers on – please check the events schedule. (Ka Bradley)

More revolve, less audience
Ever since I saw His Dark Materials, I have been been a little obsessed with the drum revolve. So I would like there to be a one-on-one show that is staged inside the Olivier drum revolve. We get submerged in the stage—down down we go to the depths of the inner coil and heart of the entire NT operation—and then we rise again having gone where no audience has gone before.

I don’t care what the story is. And maybe because of the noise of the hydraulics we wear headphones so we can hear the actor’s voice and we don’t lose the power of the one-on-one staging. Can you imagine the powerful feeling of a show in the massive Olivier with an audience of one.

Maybe this started out as a joke but now I believe in this show that I just made up and I want to buy a ticket. (Nicole Serratore)

Fill it up
Oh the Olivier and the horrible things it does to set designers… ‘BUT IT’S SO BIG.. IT ACHES TO BE FILLED ..WITH BIG PLAYS.. ABOUT BIG ISSUES… STARRING BIG ACTORS AND BIG TALK.. AND, AND ….sand. It always ends up being sand. Or mud. Something all over the floor that actors have to wade through in forced metaphor of gritty struggle or epic journeying usually to find out that this particular Greek tragedy is really symbolic of whatever horrible thing is currently happening in the world.

So let’s just fill the whole space with sand. Fill it up to the brim forever. It will be like when folk in Canada suffer a bad storm and on opening their back doors, just find an inescapable wall of snow. We can show it to tourists: “yup the Olivier, no we don’t use it much anymore. Probably because your know, ALL THE SAND. Then we can run endless articles about the SAND SPACE that ACHES TO FILLED but we can’t because of all the sand”.

Failing that let’s just use it for a Kafka-esque never ending platform talk about how hard it is to put plays on in the Olivier where the audience sit on the stage so they can truly understand the apparent, unending pain that is a rather large space with slightly odd sight-lines. (Francesca Peschier)

Mass job creation for unemployed actors
Look, the only way to justify a stage like the Olivier is to have a cast so big they literally could not fit anywhere else. One person files on, followed by another, and another, and another, until they stand, jammed in like the world’s biggest game of Sardines, and every inch of stage space is covered. Then they raise their middle fingers, in unison, and recite the text of Attempts on her Life, or 4.48 Psychosis, or Far Away (anything with a flexible number of performers). To be honest, it doesn’t really matter – someone will complain about the amount of subsidy it’s getting anyway. (Rafaella Marcus)

More musicals. But cool ones
Trevor Nunn notoriously dealt with the Olivier’s challenges by stuffing it with classic musical after classic musical, and I’m not calling for a return to those days (what’s the West End for?). But this winter’s wonderful Olivier revival of Follies shows the space’s potential, filling it with dream-like images and older female singers with vast wracked voices that can break hearts from forty paces. Admittedly, last year’s musical Wonder.land probably stalks Rufus Norris’s nightmares (it still periodically shows up in mine, tbh). Maybe that’s because despite Damon Albarn’s involvement and those harrowingly trippy digital stylings, it still felt like it was trying to be Oliver!. It’s time to challenge musical theatre’s male-dominated decades of retro kitsch and satin-veiled misogyny. Commission 21st century female songwriters/recording artists (you could shock the matinee crowd with Karin Dreijer Andersson, get 1,000 people dancing to Sacred Paws or just get Tori Amos back in) to collaborate with new writers, and infuse the genre with emotional nuance and punk power. If it doesn’t work, it’ll still bring in new audiences, as well as being much more entertaining than a floundering straight play. And if it does – my god, I am so ready for a follow-up to 2013’s The Light Princess. (Alice Saville)

Don’t listen to them Rufus: keep programming new writing
I recently purchased a copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. The cover quotes are genuinely impressive. ‘A dazzling feat of a novel’ says the Observer. “A breathtakingly ambitious mystery,” adds the Daily Mail. ‘Yes it’s big. Yes it’s clever. Do yourself a favour and read The Luminaries,’ chimes in the Independent. Ambition, daring, intellect – aren’t these precisely the qualities everyone wants their art to be known for?

Several of the so-called ‘failures’ in the Olivier have made people angry. I’m obviously out of sync with public and critical opinion because the recent NT play that provoked rage in me was Oslo. Why? For being a dull thud of middle-of-the-road drama designed to flatter rather than challenge its audience. I exist to find what is deemed ‘inoffensive’ inherently offensive. An active waste of our time on earth. Salomé, Common and St George and the Dragon share one characteristic: they were ambitious. The former attempted to dissolve centuries of patriarchal storytelling and the structures of creating theatre in one blow. The latter two set their sights on trying to understand the messy, crumbling fissures of an entire nation.

In the face of continual criticism, the temptation to turn to Olivier’s programming over to the most reliable of crowd-pleasing ‘safe’ theatre must loom large. I sincerely hope Rufus Norris resists this urge because programming new writing that seeks to be anything but simple and unchallenging in one of the biggest mainstream theatres in London is precisely what we should be doing. Sometimes it fails – yes. But when, if, it doesn’t, then like Catton you might have created a masterpiece. (Rosemary Waugh)

But maybe some plays by not-men?
I don’t think the Olivier is a problem: it’s a beautiful space – I understand that better since going to Epidaurus (ugh major twonk alert). But my god what gets put in there. PLAYS BY MEN. Why is DC Moore trusted in there and not Sam Holcroft: wtf is that about? Fine, maybe she’s not interested – or maybe she’s not encouraged to be interested. Explain that to us, please, successive male directors of the National Theatre. It’s plays by men and it’s plays that have had all the breath squeezed out of them by anxiety around Speaking to the Nation or Making Another War Horse or just excessive development and dramaturgy. Don’t fucking kid yourself that you’re speaking to the nation when you’re speaking to Parliament and Fleet Street: that’s just confirming the worst prejudices of people across the nation who voted leave that London is a myopic self-obsessed self-important bubble. Which it is, but how bad would it be to have a theatre that didn’t continually confirm that? I’m saying this like I have bright ideas but the best I’ve got is putting Slung Low in there – like, REALLY putting Slung Low in there, smoke grenades and pyrotechnics and everything – but then hang on that’s just MORE MEN. But then I look at the Royal Exchange and it’s got RashDash doing Three Sisters and the Maxine Peake takeover and I think: fuck yeah. That’s what I call programming for change. (Maddy Costa)

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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