Centre stage: The challenges for Rufus Norris, the National’s new head


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The Independent Culture

Many pages of newsprint and hundreds of blog inches have been devoted this week to declaring how much of a “daring choice” Rufus Norris is to succeed Nicholas Hytner as the National Theatre’s artistic director.

I would beg to veer off at an angle here: if one were feeling curmudgeonly it would be easier to call him, with his lack of leadership experience and self-professed incomplete knowledge of the dramatic canon, a risk. Yet, interest-sustaining media diversions about Sam Mendes and Kenneth Branagh aside, he is the candidate who was always destined for the top job.

Already part of Hytner’s highly successful group of associates, Norris was the only one who was a likely contender, with the even more plausible Marianne Elliott having ruled herself out before the race started. It has been intriguing, therefore, to watch the subtle ways in which Norris’s candidature has been boosted from within, with the National’s programming this year very much utilised to showcase his ample talents. It can’t have hindered his case, for example, that a production of his (and of his own wife’s play, no less) opened the National’s fashionable new temporary venue, the Shed, just two days after Hytner made the announcement about stepping down. Hot on the heels of this came his hefty – and news-making – revival of James Baldwin’s all-black The Amen Corner in the dauntingly large Olivier auditorium. Intimate, epic: Norris was being given a golden series of chances to remind everyone, at just the right time, that he could handle it all with panache.

The trouble is that it is mighty tough to move from being inside an establishment to shaking it up. This, however, is exactly what Norris will have to do, because the very worst strategy he could deploy would be to try and create Hytner Version 2.0. Hytner has overseen an unprecedented golden age in the National’s history but Norris, if he is to have any chance of success, will need to forge his own clear path away from that of his strong-willed mentor. This is perforce going to necessitate difficult decisions, not least in removing from office some of the people he has called colleagues on the South Bank. Every new regime requires fresh faces and Norris must be courageous in the choice of his own team of associates.

If rumour is to be believed, he beat three current artistic directors to the job: Jonathan Church (Chichester), Daniel Evans (Sheffield) and David Lan (Young Vic). That’s a lot of experience the National’s Succession Committee chose to overlook in favour of someone who has never run a venue, balanced a budget or argued with a board, much less a government increasingly hostile to the idea of public subsidy. In his press conference this week Norris made much of his “collegiate” virtues and his desire to be surrounded by talented peers. He could do worse than reflect on what the men – and, once again, it was only men who were in real contention – who came so close might offer him.

In recent years, and largely thanks to the global success of War Horse, the National’s commercial operations, and thus its revenue streams, have expanded enormously. A revamped “leadership structure”, including an executive director, is to be announced in months to come to take into account this increased workload; a clever choice for involvement here would be Church, who is a canny producer as well as an accomplished director.

Wise eyes will be needed to work alongside Rufus Norris, the shoo-in risk.