Carole Woddis ponders the appointment of Rufus Norris to lead the NT, and offers interesting insight and surprises.
National Theatre – Rufus Norris – Carole Woddis
Very few outside the cognoscenti seem to have heard of Rufus Norris. ‘Chuck Norris?’ tweeted one person. ‘Have I heard it right, is Rufus Wainwright taking over the National Theatre?’ enquired another.
There’s no doubt the choice of Rufus Norris is a surprise, left field appointment to all but a small inner circle and certainly to the rest of the country beyond the Watford Gap. Prior to the announcement, all the usual suspects had nudged their way into the frame at some point: Kenneth Branagh, Michael Grandage, Sam Mendes, even Marianne Elliot (though she had firmly said she wasn’t interested). It was even pondered whether Kevin Spacey might like a go. All red herrings.
In the end, it was down to two, between David Lan, the highly successful AD of the Young Vic or his Associate, Rufus Norris.
A turn up for the books in more ways than one, Norris is unquestionably a break with the Oxbridge cabal who have ruled the roost since the National Theatre’s inception on the Southbank when Peter Hall drove into view. Interestingly, it now puts two former actors in charge of the nation’s two most prestigious – and highly funded – theatre institutions, the RSC and the National. Both Greg Doran and Rufus Norris started out as actors before swopping over to directing. Almost a back to the future scenario if you take the long view, back a century or two when actor-managers were in the ascendant.
Norris is definitely from another part of the jungle. Greeted apparently with unanimous favour within the bastions of the National – he had apparently been heir apparent for at least the past six months to close observers – recent NT productions include his popular gospel drenched rendition of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner and an unexpectedly subtle and searing production of Tanya Ronder’s Table to launch the NT’s temporary Shed. Tanya Ronder happens to be Mrs Rufus Norris.
Norris though was brought up in some far-away places – Ethiopia, Malaysia, Nigeria. You can detect his non-alignment with British establishment thinking in many of his past productions for the Young Vic – Feast by Yunior García Aguilera, Rotimi Babatunde, Marcos Barbosa, Tanya Barfield & Gbolahan Obisesan (2013), Peribanez by Lope da Vega in a version by Tanya Ronder (2003) as well as Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka at the National (2009).
They all had an extra, non-English colour and ebullience about them. But he also has Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s sung verbatim piece about serial murder in East Anglia, London Road (National 2011), David Eldridge’s adaptation of that quietly devastating portrait of the middle-class family in melt-down, Festen (Almeida, 2004) and the wildly different slice-of-small town USA, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (adapted again by his wife, Tanya Ronder (Young Vic 2009) under his belt.
Nothing if not eclectic, Norris has already spoken about trying to right the gender balance that has been notably absent under Hytner. It’s clear Tanya Ronder won’t be having to look round too hard for employment. One can only hope Norris is as good as his word and spreads the net further to reflect not only more than half the theatre’s audience base (the National’s regular theatregoers show an overwhelming bias in the middle aged, middle class area) as well as racially.
One still awaits a female artistic director at the helm of a major theatre organisation. Rufus Norris may well be the welcoming white hope long hoped for generally, his appointment signalling a wholesale re-evaluation of what England’s national theatre should stand for.
Scotland and Wales have shown the way with their peripatetic national companies. Vicky Featherstone, the architect of the National Theatre of Scotland is now at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, not a million miles away from the Southbank. It will be fascinating to see how those two communicate – Norris and Featherstone – and whether any of the innovations Featherstone brought to bear during her time in Scotland rub off on the new AD designate at Waterloo. Watch this space!