Michael Coveney: Rufus Norris sidles charmingly into place at the National, cheered by staff and Hytner alike
Our chief critic responds to today's announcement that Rufus Norris will succeed Nicholas Hytner as NT artistic director from April 2015
There's never been dissent surrounding the appointment of any of the six National Theatre artistic directors - well, Peter Hall, the architect of our post-war theatre, was a power-mad empire builder for some, and Trevor Nunn was obviously a "holding" compromise appointment after Richard Eyre - but everyone loves Rufus Norris; hope that lasts!
Modest, likeable and a little bit sexy in his dark good looks, unbuttoned shirt and frank emissions, he charmed today's press conference in the Olivier stalls bar, not least when, reminded that he was the first trained actor with practical experience to run the NT since Olivier, he said, "I wasn't quite as good as him."
All of his predecessors - Olivier, Hall, Eyre, Nunn and Hytner - came with glowing credentials and (except for Olivier) degrees from Cambridge University. Norris, well known as every actor's favourite director in the rehearsal room, comes from somewhere else: a childhood in Africa and Malaysia, a Midlands education in Bromsgrove and Kidderminster, an acting course at RADA and - how about this! - four years in a rock band while working as a painter and decorator.
I just hope, for his sake, there's not an internet rush of complainants over his dodgy bathroom taps, breakfast-room colour schemes and shoddily installed damp courses over the next few weeks... and this indicates the other side of his vulnerability, his lack of "Oxbridge" familiarity with the canon of plays in the world repertoire: "My knowledge is incomplete," he said, "so I'll have to surround myself with people who do know about it all." Bit of a worry, that.
Nicholas Hytner, grinning benignly on the side, like an inscrutable elf, and basking in the compliments thrown in his direction by both Norris and NT chairman John Makinson - he really has been a great director, leaving the place in a much stronger place than he inherited, said Norris - said there was one big difference between himself and his successor.
"When Rufus goes on holiday, he sleeps on the floor; when I go on holiday, I stay in expensive hotels." That might change now that Norris will earn considerably more than the median income of £10,000 a year he said was the lot of the jobbing freelance director. He and Hytner had just come from the Lyttelton auditorium where he had been introduced to the staff.
Hytner said that the whole crowd of them had given Norris the biggest roar (and a standing ovation) he'd heard in the place since the waiter Alfie first fell down the stairs in One Man, Two Guvnors. He's got the whole place on his side.
Will that have turned his head rather than just cheered him up? Probably not. He's married to the playwright Tanya Ronder - whose adaptations of Peribanez and Vernon God Little were such spectacular successes for them both at the Young Vic after his breakthrough there with the brilliant "lightbulb" revival of David Rudkin's Afore Night Come - and they have two teenage sons.
How had Norris celebrated his appointment (which was confirmed yesterday when Makinson shook his hand after a board meeting; you sense that the cat's been in the bag for some while now)? "I had a nice tea with my kids last night who sat down and took the piss."
He regarded the job as a huge honour and privilege and said that he's never been afraid of not having answers. That seemed to him to be part of the job: finding them, or at least looking. Was he nervous? "Of course I'm nervous. Nerves are part of the DNA in what we do in the theatre." And he still has 18 months of Hytner being in the building to show him the ropes.
Hytner got splendidly agitated when asked what qualities were most needed for the job. "Appetite," he said... "Rufus has the appetite, and the talent, unlike some of the other applicants, who may not have been hungry enough...", which suddenly suggested that he, Hytner, may have been a little more on the inside of the appointment than we were led to believe; but Makinson also said that the NT board had gone out of their way to canvas opinion inside and outside of the building, and it's inconceivable, I suppose, that they wouldn't have consulted Hytner himself.
The cameras rolled and clicked, Nick Starr - Hytner's partner in successful crime these past ten years - patrolled the perimeter, confirming that his deputy executive, Kate Horton, was leaving the NT in a month's time to go freelance, journalists sipped coffee.
Libby Purves said that the NT had had to announce the appointment today as Hytner was a guest on her Radio 4 Midweek morning programme tomorrow (along with comedian Jack Whitehall and his, Jack's, dad), while Sam Marlowe of The Times said she still didn't really know what was going on in the changeover between Libby and Dominic Maxwell.
I look forward to returning to the NT later today to pick up the "new guy" vibe, drop in on an NT 50th anniversary platform with David Hare and Penelope Wilton, and catch up with Edward II, the sort of lively, contentious (and very popular, apparently) classical revival Norris will no doubt approve in the future; and the work of another Young Vic apprentice, Joe Hill-Gibbins. Now the NT has got round to Marlowe again - Peter Hall's production of Tamburlaine with Albert Finney actually opened the Olivier auditorium in 1976 - will they take a hint from the altercation between Noel Coward and Edith Evans in the 1964 NT revival of Hay Fever?
Evans as Judith Bliss, the Thames-side chatelaine, persisted in rehearsals in saying, "On a very clear day you can see Marlow." Driven to distraction, Coward, who was directing, exploded, "Edith, dear, the line is - On a clear day you can see Marlow - on a VERY clear day, you can see Marlowe, and Beaumont, and Fletcher."