Matt Trueman: Rufus Norris has had an extraordinary first year

Following the National Theatre’s new season announcement, Matt Trueman reflects on Rufus Norris’s first year as boss of the National Theatre

The National Theatre
The National Theatre
© James Stringer

In early January, The Stage announced its annual Stage 100 list; a role-call of the 100 "most influential" people in British theatre. The press release trotted through the key stories. First, that ATG’s Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire had overtaken Andrew Lloyd Webber by topping the table for the seventh time. Second, that Rufus Norris was in at number 12 – the first time that a serving artistic director of the National theatre had dropped out of the top ten since 2001.

There’s been a distinct tang of scepticism over Norris’s start – much as there was with Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court. He was, of course, stepping into big shoes, after Nicks Hytner and Starr had so reshaped the National. More than one wag likened him to David Moyes at Manchester United,taking over from Alex Ferguson. Tongues wagged all the more when Tessa Ross stepped down as Chief Executive after only six months in post, with whispers of a power struggle at the top. Then, arguably the headline show of his first season, was set upon with rare savagery by critics, who scented blood and went in for the kill.

Let me cut to the chase: in that time, I’ve become a huge RuNo fan. To my mind, he’s had an extraordinary first year in post – and there are still a couple of shows to come before that milestone passes. In the last 12 months, I’ve had more truly special nights at the National than in any other theatre in the country – and all of them absolutely their own thing.

To my mind, he’s had an extraordinary first year in post

There was the detail and empathy of Husbands and Sons: D.H. Lawrence’s mining trilogy polished up for a box-set audience. Polly Findlay’s reinvention of As You Like It, an austere Arden that blossomed into colour and community spirit. Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre, theatre at its most infectious, got into my bloodstream and proved, without any doubt, that regional theatres deserved a national platform – something that will continue for the next year. Last week, another: Dominic Cooke‘s exquisite staging of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Writing of the highest order, fine-tuned direction, with some of the finest acting – individual and ensemble – you’ll find onstage.

I could go on: the gumption of Evening at the Talk House, the daring of Here We Go, the delight of I Want My Hat Back. Denise Gough in People Places and Things. Even its imports have been exceptional: Beyond Caring, Iphigenia in Splott, Pomona. That is an embarrassment of riches by anyone’s standards – one that marks a fresh interest in questions of form, shape and structure. (Is that what’s scaring the horses, as it did at the Royal Court?) Others have loved other shows – The Red Lion, Three Days in the Country, Brainstorm – a mark of the fact that the National doesn’t have an audience, it has several.

Sharon D. Clarke in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Sharon D. Clarke in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

That’s born out in the new season Norris announced last week, split as it is between big-name classics and edgier, experimental fare. (Hard to call anything at the National alternative, really.) It makes a lot of sense against Norris’s mission statement: a National Theatre for everyone.

Well known plays, many not seen in London for a generation – Angels in America, Amadeus, Cleansed – in the hands of fresh, exciting directors like Michael Longhurst, Robert Icke and Ivo van Hove. There’s an emphasis on great actors – not stars, actors – as well; the one single thing that gets bums onto seats. Andrew Garfield, Helen McCrory, Tamsin Greig and Lucian Msamati: these people, these artists, pull crowds. Others – Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel, Alexander Zeldin, Sally Cookson – push the art-form forwards, and the National’s new work department, a reinvention of the old literary model, bodes very well for the future.

It’s as simple as this: I can’t remember the last time I wanted to see every single show in a National Theatre season. Whether this works, whether it widens audiences and delivers great work, remains to be seen, but, to my mind, Norris has started superbly.