Who is Rufus Norris, the National Theatre's new Artistic Director?

Nicholas Hytner's replacement has only been directing a short time - he is an unorthodox choice, whose signature is inclusiveness.

This piece was originally published on theartsdesk.com

The sixth artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain will be Rufus Norris, it was announced this morning. The bookies’ favourites such as Marianne Elliot, Michael Grandage and Dominic Cooke having long since ruled themselves out, Norris can be welcomed as a daring choice. For a start, unlike most of his predecessors, he has never run a large theatre company – although he has been an associate down the road at the Young Vic and at the National itself. Nor, as in the case of Trevor Nunn’s many musicals and Nicholas Hytner with Miss Saigon, has he a huge commercial hit to his name. Indeed at the age of 48 he has been directing at the highest level for only a relatively short period.

Having trained as an actor at RADA, Norris the director did not come to the attention of wider audiences until 2001 with a revival of Afore Night Came, David Rudkin’s 1962 play for a sizeable cast about Black Country fruit-pickers at the Young Vic. That won him the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Newcomer. The show that had even greater impact, and showcased an intense and subtle theatrical sensibility, was his staging of the Danish film from the Dogme school, Festen, which travelled from the Almeida in 2004 to Broadway via the West End.

Norris’s sheer energy and restless urge to explore make him hard to pin down. He has directed Cabaret (twice) for Bill Kenwright, Don Giovanni for English National Opera and, with Damon Albarn, Dr Dee for Manchester International Festival. For children he's staged a faithful version of Tintin in Tibet. His epic account of DBC Pierre's Booker winner Vernon God Little for the Young Vic, from an adaptation by his wife  and frequent collaborator Tanya Ronder, used nimble stage trickery to conjure up the world of working-class Texas. In 2008 he returned to Broadway to direct a first revival of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaison Dangereuses starring Laura Linney and Ben Daniels.

If Norris has a signature it is inclusiveness. Only this year at the Young Vic he and no fewer than five playwrights staged the hugely ambitious Feast, which told the 350-year story of Yoruba culture with the help of every theatrical trick in the book. Then at the National he directed an all-black cast in a revival of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, set in a riven religious community in Harlem, persuading Marianne Jean-Baptiste to return to the British theatre for the first time in more than a decade. With Ronder’s play Table he also opened the National’s temporary studio space the Shed. With Broken he also directed his debut feature film, set in a notably violent suburban cul-de-sac. It won Best Film at this year's British Independent Film Awards.

But the calling card that best advertises Norris’s theatrical instincts is London Road, the musical account of the murder of five sex workers in Ipswich. Created by Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork, it wasdescribed by theartsdesk as “an exceptional piece of theatre”. He is due to shoot a film version before he takes over on the Southbank in March 2015.

In short, Norris is an artistic director who breaks with what might be seen as a National Theatre tradition. Unlike Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn he is not known as a great Shakespearean, he has no established relationship with a leading British playwright as Richard Eyre did with David Hare and Hytner with Alan Bennett, and he didn’t go to Cambridge. His only orthodoxy as an NT artistic director is that he's not a woman.

“This appointment is a great honour,” Norris said this morning, “and I am thrilled at the prospect and challenge of leading this exceptional organistion, where it has been a privilege to work under the inspirational leadership of Nicholas Hytner. The National is an extraordinary place, full of extraordinary people, and I look forward with relish to the task ahead – to fill our theatres with the most exciting, accessible and ground-breaking work our unique and broad community of artists has to offer.”

This piece was originally published on theartsdesk.com

Rufus Norris - the new Director of the National Theatre, on London's south bank. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.
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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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