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.”