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Features Published 3 February 2017

The Trouble With ‘National’ Theatre

"Olivier, Hall, and Nunn had it easy. Norris has it all to do." As Rufus Norris comes under attack, Fergus Morgan explores the troublesome business of theatre and nation building.
Fergus Morgan

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If you haven’t used them all up fretting about Brexit, or Theresa the Appeaser, or the fragility of England’s top order, spare a thought for Rufus Norris. The artistic directorship of the National Theatre is a singularly trying job at the best of times. And early 2017 is certainly not the best of times.

In the past week, Norris has been obliquely criticised by David Hare for the encroachment of visionary European ‘theatre-makers’ onto this green and pleasant land of ‘state-of-the-nation’ plays written by David Hare, and directly attacked by Michael Billington for the lack of classic plays in the National’s newly announced season. Lyn Gardner and Matt Trueman have ably leapt to his defence, but neither Hare, nor Billington, nor Gardner, nor Trueman seem to appreciate the scope of this particular knot, nor the size of the task confronting Norris today.

Running the National has always been a feat of tightrope walking. Balancing the number of new plays to the number of old plays, balancing the number of female writers to male writers, balancing the championing of new voices with the celebration and reassessment of the old, and, lest we forget, balancing the books. It’s a job of attempting to please everyone, from the Arts Council to the audience to the actors, while simultaneously having a finger on the pulse of the national mood. And, in our fractured, post-Brexit world, this is a nigh impossible task. ‘Twas not always thus. Get ready for a history lesson.

The earliest national theatres of Europe – those not established by autocrats as cultural toys – were far more concerned with national identity than ours has been in recent years. In many instances, in fact, national theatres existed before the nations they represented. The first recognised experiment, the Hamburg National Theatre, was set up in 1767. With Lessing as its dramaturg, it attempted to distinguish a common, identifiably German theatrical tradition that would help coalesce the disparate territories of Germany, which numbered over 300 at the time.

In his collection of essays, the Hamburg Dramaturgy, Lessing frequently commented on his frustration with his theatre’s dependence on the hegemonic theatrical cultures of France and Italy. Influenced by the German Romantic Nationalism of, among others, Johann Herder, his work focussed on discovering common cultural touchstones, on promoting German folklore, and on performing in native languages. It was, in brief, an exercise in myth-making.

The experiment failed, but the dream never died. In 1784, in his famous speech on theatre as a moral institution, Schiller said that “if we could witness the birth of our own national theatre, then we would truly become a nation”. It was an idea to fuel the founding of national theatres across Europe, from Slovenia, to Ireland, to Norway, over the next 150 years. National theatres became tools for building nations.

Since the Second World War, however, as globalisation took hold, European interpenetration began, and the countries of Europe became increasingly international, increasingly multicultural, and increasingly democratic, this emphasis on defining and protecting national identity became just one of the roles National Theatres had to play, among many. The concept of, as academic Loren Kruger terms it, ‘theatrical nationhood’ gained currency: representing and examining a nation on stage in front of a representative national audience. National theatres no longer presented the nation as they wanted it to be, but reflected it as it was.

Hand in hand with this, these new national theatres – of which ours is one, despite it having its roots in the late nineteenth century – became more concerned with embracing the entire nation through touring, with adjusting their output to correct any prevalent class or gender hegemony, with supporting the dramatic voices of minority cultures, with collaborating, and with considering international situations as well as national ones. Celebration of national culture fell down the ladder of priorities to somewhere near the bottom. The balancing act begun.

In Britain, these competing claims have fluctuated over time, each waxing and waning in relation to the socio-political climate. One thinks of Ken Tynan championing the refreshing existentialism of Stoppard in the late sixties, of David Hare’s sprawling state-of-the-nation trilogy in the early nineties, of the extensive national tours of One Man, Two Guvnors, Curious Incident and War Horse. Our National Theatre, catering to our needs, showing us our country, representing us, entertaining us, educating us. But keeping all these spinning plates in the air just became a whole lot harder. It’s not exactly an incendiary piece of political commentary to suggest that Britain today is more divided than it has ever been. The lead up to and fallout from last June’s referendum has uncovered a fractured landscape, a country riven with difference. Difference between the old and the young, difference between the haves and the have-nots, difference between the cities and the countryside, difference between the north and the south. We live in a disunited kingdom. I don’t even speak to my Grandma, the bloody Brexiteer.

How can the National hope to cater for such an audience? How can Rufus Norris plan a season of work that will fulfil the needs of everyone in society? How can he put anything on without sticking two fingers up to at least 48% of the country? What is the point of having a National Theatre when we are barely a nation anymore?

The story of national theatres has come full circle. They began as exercises in gluing disparate people together, mutated with the demands of globalisation and democratisation to play myriad different societal roles, and are now confronted with the same problem they faced in the first place: shaping and examining a country from a clamorous, discontent, frustrated, tribal population. Lending a hand in fashioning a Britain at ease with its diverse, 21st century identity, in telling a story that engages us all, whichever way we voted, whatever our politics. And that’s an entirely new prospect. Olivier, Hall, Eyre, Nunn and Hytner had it easy. Norris has it all to do.

And he knows it. Speaking on the Today programme back in July, Norris acknowledged that although the Brexit vote posed serious financial issues for the National, it also “revealed how much work there is to make this country joined up.” And in an interview with The Stage in October, he asserted that “if any of us – having watched our political leadership during the referendum and what followed – believe they have a coherent plan, then we’re naïve. That means that it’s really important that we as a society discuss it. Now.”

Which is why the most intriguing prospect in the National’s new season is not that of seeing Brian Cranston on the London stage, or that of a new play from Annie Baker, or that of finally seeing People, Places and Things. It’s that of Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon, “an epic new folk play” for “a country in need of a story”. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to realise that the country in need of a story ain’t some mythical land of knights in shining armour, it’s Britain, here and now. I’m imagining it as an English response to Hamilton: an evocation of legend that asserts the importance of religious, racial, and political tolerance, that acknowledges those overlooked by the establishment, and that inspires us to make our voices heard.

Brexit told us who were aren’t. We need a National Theatre that will unite us in finding out who we are, that will challenge us to be better as a nation, whatever our background, wherever we’re from, and it’s up to Rufus Norris to provide it. I don’t know how. Michael Billington doesn’t know how. Matt Trueman doesn’t know how. But Norris just might. He certainly deserves the chance to give it a shot. God knows, if he can get halfway there, the knighthood’s in the bag.

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Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine