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Rufus Norris is stepping down in 2025 as artistic director of the National Theatre

What will his legacy be?

As you may by now have read, The National Theatre’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, announced his departure this week; he had been an associate director at the NT since 2011.

When Norris took over the NT in 2015, it felt like an institution at the height of its powers. It was also the heady days pre-Brexit, social media was not such a cesspool and there was plenty of cash in the reserves.

This week, low-key Norris, who has also served as chief executive of the NT since 2015, described his time in charge as the “greatest privilege” of his career but also “the most challenging in our history”.

Having steered the NT through the pandemic and Brexit, Norris, has been dealing more recently with an £850,000 DCMS budget cut by Arts Council England.

Norris made his feeling known that Levelling-up in the arts should “not be at the expense of London.”

He added: “What London contributes to our economy and creative status in the world is enormous and outweighs the small amount of money we are talking about”.

Point of fact, the six artistic directors in the theatre’s history have all been white men: Sir Laurence Olivier (1963-73), Sir Peter Hall (1973-88), Sir Richard Eyre (1988-97), Sir Trevor Nunn (1997-2003), Sir Nicholas Hytner (2003-15) and Norris.

You wonder, then, if the NT may explore dual leadership, like the recent appointment of Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey as co-artistic directors at the RSC. Perhaps the first person of colour will take the reins.

Indeed, Norris also made a handful of structural changes that will have a legacy.

First up? Norris has actively championed environmental sustainability (the NTs energy bill has gone up from £800,000 a year to £3.5 million per year) and a green agenda.

During the pandemic and at a time of great uncertainty, Norris appointed brilliant Clint Dyer as deputy artistic director to oversee the theatre’s creative output.

The absolute highlight of Norris’s entire tenure for me, though, saw him oversee The National Theatre Collection, set up in 2019, that is now streamed in 85% of secondary state schools, for free.

Let’s not forget National Theatre at Home, too.

Furthermore, on stage the NT has had success on the increased diversity, and gender equality front.

And over the next 12 months, 19 out of the NT’s 21 productions will be by living writers and 60% of the directors at the NT over the past eight years have made their debut. 

Of course, hits included Small Island, Jack Absolute Flies Again, The Lehman Trilogy, Mosquitoes, and current play The Motive and the Cue.

But did we get a mega hit like War Horse? No, sadly. 

Personally speaking, I found a lot of the artistic commissioning during his tenure indifferent. Norris regularly failed to introduce a basic level of quality control. See: wonder.land, Macbeth, SaloméSaint George and the Dragon, Manor, Common, Cleansed, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, and Kerry Jackson.

In fact, a journalist I was sat next to at a First Night summed up his tenure perfectly: “It’s not that Rufus has bad taste, it’s that he has no taste.”

Recently, he was also accused of “blatant nepotism” by employing his wife Tanya Ronder as book writer on baffling musical Hex

Yup, what it needed, of course, was a decent producer to tell him: “Do not remount this (again), or employ your wife at a time when creative freelancers are struggling, you’re ruining Christmas.”

Opinions, I understand, will differ on that one, as they do on nearly all matters in the theatre. It’s a tough gig.

But look, in terms of Norris’s opening mission statement, his mission to make the NT for everyone has served its purpose and more if we judge him by these words: “I think it is very important that we reflect the city and the country we are in. We have to be national in terms of what we are debating, the subjects we are looking at, and particularly the people and stories we are representing.”

Mission accomplished. Mostly.

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Normal has walked the plank & theatre is in flux

January 2022

As we await the known unknowns of Omicron, one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. 

I am fed up. Jaded. Exhausted. None of this is normal. Normal has walked the plank.

Life of Pi

I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read this, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.

Alas, The Music Venue Trust, which represents grassroots music venues around the country, has warned of combined losses of £22 million by the end of January – effectively undermining “the entire ecosystem that is the bedrock of a £5 billion world-leading music industry”.

Crisis management, particularly in a health emergency, demands leadership that’s firm, fast, decisive and calm. This government have failed us.

More than 150,000 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid test since the pandemic began 22 months ago. Every one of those 150,000 lives lost leaves its own story, and grief, behind. 

Unfortunately, hopes of building a fairer society and improving the lot of key workers are being trumped by a wish to return to normal.

The winter has been a disaster for hospitality and entertainment venues. Christmas – the time that institutions rely on for 40% of their annual income – was a wash out for the second year on the trot for most UK theatres. Omicron and Plan B turmoil emptied our auditoriums as audiences stayed home and creative teams self-isolated.

The industry continues to face insurmountable challenges. 

Nightclubs are shut in Wales
, with limits on hospitality, sports events and who people can meet.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the government has ordered capacities for seated indoor performances are cut to 200 and social distancing is back for at least three weeks.

In the past month, theatre producer Sonia Friedman has cancelled more than 158 shows and lost more than £4 million because of the continued uncertainty. “We are seeing drops in our box office of 25 and 50 per cent. There’s fear, despair and confusion all round,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The government think we are OK but we are not.” 

Still, in ‘normal times’ live events are estimated to be worth £70 billion a year, yet the Culture Recovery Fund largely failed to reach freelancers, who do the work. The government continues to stand by. 

Pride and Prejudice* (sort of*

Last week, critic Dominic Maxwell presented a vital summary of the state of play, with producer of Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) David Pugh stating: “I don’t know how long we can keep going. Some people are giving the impression that everything is fine. It really isn’t. It’s beyond serious.” The production will close in London next month and hopefully tour.

Meanwhile, in the same article, artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris admitted that the institution will have to dip into reserves after the covid-cursed musical Hex was cancelled multiple times and will end the current run without a press night. “We are recognising that it is going to be grim over the next couple of weeks. But we will do whatever we can to keep open.” Norris says. 

In London’s West End Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye states that the lack of a robust central, unified voice of information is leaving audiences and the industry beleaguered and baffled. “The West End has a body, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), that’s supposed to represent theatre owners and producers. But it has been hopeless at communicating the changes that are affecting show schedules daily basis…” he says. “Come on, people, get organised! You’ve had two years. Productions are on a precipice. Thousands of jobs are on the line.”

Indeed, Julian Bird, the current chief executive of the SOLT and U.K. Theatre, has acknowledged his own gathering irrelevance by announcing he will step down from the position, effective May 2022.

Hex

Bird, who has been with the organisations since 2010, said: “It had always been my intention to think about moving on around the 10th anniversary of my time in the role, which would have been in November 2020. As with so much, the pandemic intervened in that.” 

Well, quite. 

Off West End, emerging work and young talent is once again under serious threat. Also last week, as you might have seen, The Vault Festival, an annual London fringe event was cancelled for the third year in a row. 

The Vaults is an essential part of the theatre ecology – roughly six hundred shows, featuring over 2,500 performances over several months – and is often a calling card for young, underrepresented, and diverse artists. The other benefits of appearing at the festival are incalculable. 

The official statement reads: “We have to make brave and proactive decisions to prioritise and protect the mental health, wellbeing and safety of our staff, artists, and audiences. We work with a lot of vulnerable people, for whom participating in the festival is no longer viable in light of the ongoing developments.”

The VAULT Festival sign above one of the underground venues

Nevertheless, the generosity and offers of advice to those affected from some sections of the theatre community have been nothing short of inspiring. More please, folks.

I have been buoyed by scenes of understudies, swings and covers saving the day – and everyone who has kept theatre going against all odds in recent weeks. Pandemic heroes.

Anyway, let us hope that new medicines and stronger vaccines are reasons for real optimism. Spring will come around and *there is a chance that* 2022 will be the year we live alongside the virus – a hope for an industry so savaged by lockdowns and government abandon. 

If you or your show have been affected by anything mentioned in this blog, need advice or help do not hesitate to contact me: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com

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National Theatre to reopen with Death of England sequel Delroy starring Giles Terera


Today the National Theatre announces its commitment to begin creating new work again, with plans to resume socially-distanced live performances in the Olivier Theatre in late October.

A new one-person play, DEATH OF ENGLAND: DELROY, by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, will be directed by Dyer, and performed by Giles Terera. This follows on from Dyer and Williams’ play Death of England, which Dyer also directed, and which was performed by Rafe Spall to critical acclaim in the Dorfman Theatre, closing only weeks before lockdown.

The production team, together with Giles Terera, have been back at the National Theatre this week working on the play: the first artists to return to work in the building since it closed. The new play was commissioned by the NT’s New Work Department at the start of lockdown and written over the subsequent five months. It explores a different side of the Death of England story as it focuses on the character of Delroy, the best friend of Michael, the protagonist of the first piece.

London, 2020. Delroy is arrested on his way to the hospital. Filled with anger and grief, he recalls the moments and relationships that gave him hope before his life was irrevocably changed. This new work explores a Black working-class man searching for truth and confronting his relationship with Great Britain.

Delroy: Roy Williams, Giles Terera and Clint Dyer at the National Theatre ( Helen Murray )

Delroy: Roy Williams, Giles Terera and Clint Dyer at the National Theatre ( Helen Murray )

Government have now confirmed that indoor, socially-distanced performances can resume from this Saturday. Death of England: Delroy will begin performances in late October. Tickets will go on sale in September, when full details of the performance schedule, ticketing, and safety measures for audiences will also be available.

Speaking about the play Clint Dyer and Roy Williams said: “There’s a moment in Death of England at his father’s funeral where Michael tells Delroy, ‘you may act like us and talk like us, but you will never be one of us’. In telling Delroy’s story, we hope to take audiences on an illuminating journey into the Black British psyche and realities of a ‘tolerant’ England in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre said: “This week Death of England: Delroy will have its first workshop as we finally, carefully open the doors of the theatre to artists and put in place plans to start live performance again this Autumn.  Clint Dyer and Roy Williams have delivered another explosive piece of work; set during lockdown and charting its own fearless and provocative course through the same subjects as its prequel, and a very English reflection of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is so important for us to be welcoming artists back into the building again, and planning for doing the same for our much-missed audiences. The moment the incomparable Giles Terera steps out on the Olivier stage at that first performance will be an incredible one, and I’m thrilled to be reopening our theatre with such an important and timely piece of work.”