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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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