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Artillery Row

Joie de vivre

Has the National Theatre brought back fun?

Regular readers of my various diatribes against Rufus Norris, the current artistic director of the National Theatre, might think that I have a vindictive little grudge against the chap. After all, I have decried his stewardship of the NT over the past few years as lacking direction, obsessed with alienating its traditional audiences and, along with his fellow artistic directors, prizing grim, worthy and woke productions over purely entertaining ones.

Certainly, it would be easier to love the country’s greatest theatre if there were productions shown that general audiences would actually want to see, rather than “socially important” ones appealing to narrow vested interests. And, post-pandemic (if we are allowed to say such a thing), the litany of flops under his stewardship has continued dispiritingly, climaxing in a rare no-star review from The Times for Moira Buffini’s “breathtakingly inept” recent state-of-the-nation play Manor. 

Running the National Theatre is never an easy task. As the memoirs and diaries of its previous artistic directors Richard Eyre, Peter Hall and Nicholas Hytner testify, it places even the most talented and versatile of theatre practitioners in a near-impossible position. Every flop is magnified, and only the most staggering of successes transcend the expectation that every play should be appearing to sold-out audiences. Tellingly, Trevor Nunn, who had a miserable time as the National’s artistic director — which largely consisted of his staging big-budget musicals that could then be profitably transported into the West End — has made few public statements about his stint there, perhaps because he remains traumatised.

Norris has offered his more traditional audiences and critics an olive branch

I do not know what Norris has made of his time as artistic director, bedevilled as he has been by pandemics, poor reviews and sarcastic columnists who seem to be willing him to fail. I cannot imagine that it has been a great deal of fun. As an admirer of much of Norris’ work as a director, I remain hopeful that the National can recapture something of the joie de vivre that it displayed in his first seasons as artistic director. Pitch-perfect revivals of Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem and Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (irreverently adapted by Patrick Marber, briefly the National’s apparent in-house dramatist, as Three Days In The Country) showed that Norris’ tastes were pleasingly diverse, in the original sense of the word, and that there was a place for the light-hearted as well as for the painfully earnest.

Which is why the National’s announcement of its summer season feels, for the first time in an aeon, as if Norris has offered his more traditional audiences and critics an olive branch. Two plays have been announced that sound as if they should be purely entertaining, without the hand-wringing and joylessness that has accompanied too many other dramas at the theatre. The first is the long-postponed Jack Absolute Flies Again, a WWII-set adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals by the One Man, Two Guvnors playwright Richard Bean and the actor Oliver Chris, which will be directed by Emily Burns while starring Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop. The second, possibly even more exciting, is a new production of Much Ado About Nothing, set in the Italian Riviera in the Thirties. It will star John Heffernan and Katherine Parkinson as the warring lovers Benedick and Beatrice, directed by Simon Godwin.

If Godwin’s name is not necessarily a household one, this reflects how hard it is to achieve fame through being a sublimely talented director of Shakespeare in the 21st century. His recent productions of Twelfth Night (with Tamsin Greig as a gender-flipped Malvolia), Antony and Cleopatra with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, and Romeo and Juliet with Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley (turned from a live performance into a filmed one because of pandemic constraints) have all managed to breath freshness and vitality into the texts, making all of them must-see spectacles. The pairing of the great Heffernan and wonderful Parkinson, both of whom have established their theatrical bona fides with brilliant work at the National and elsewhere for years, is hugely exciting. Only the most cynical would bet against this being as big a smash as the Simon Russell Beale/Zoe Wanamaker production from 2007.

I am withholding the third cheer until I have seen the plays

So, Norris is indeed bringing back fun to the National this summer, and a grateful nation should thank him. We cannot rest easy yet — memories of how a can’t-fail Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff turned into a nightmare are still fresh — but these productions seem firmly on the right track. But what will come next? If both plays are a success, will it embolden Norris to return to the canon, and either commission or direct large-scale revivals of many of the dramatists who have been overlooked by the National throughout his tenure? Or is this a one-time peace offering, with more Manors lurking miserably in the wings come the autumn?

We shall see. It is worth bearing in mind that many of the National’s most conspicuous successes throughout its history, both commercially and critically, have been its comedies. Noel Coward’s reputation revived spectacularly in 1964 when he directed Hay Fever in the National’s early incarnation at the Old Vic, under the artistic directorship of Laurence Olivier. Coward quipped, “I am thrilled and flattered and frankly a little flabbergasted that the National Theatre should have had the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine and to give it a cast that could play the Albanian telephone directory.” This cast included Maggie Smith, Edith Evans, Derek Jacobi and Robert Stephens. Subsequent hits have included everything from Stoppard’s Arcadia to Bennett’s The History Boys, along with countless well-chosen, perfectly cast and excellently directed revivals.

I have given the National, and its artistic director, a hard time not out of spite, but because I hold it to a higher standard than its peers. The RSC, perhaps understandably because of Gregory Doran’s personal circumstances, seems barely to have been on the pitch for years when it comes to producing work that crosses over into the wider public consciousness, and the Globe’s latest debacle is all too representative of a theatre that seems fatally uncertain about what its central purpose is. The National’s new direction seems both propitious and genuinely exciting. So, two cheers for Rufus Norris. I am withholding the third until I have seen the plays, out of hard-earned experience, but, for the first time in years, I am genuinely excited about heading to the NT once again. For this relief, Rufus, much thanks.

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