Michael Coveney: Rufus Norris's National – fresh meat or cold potatoes?

‘In the admirable rush to be all things to all men in the name of diversity and inclusivity, the danger is you lose sight of what you really want to do’

The National Theatre
Changing times: The National Theatre
© James Stringer
Happy New Year, and a pretty happy-with-themselves new National Theatre pairing of Tessa Ross, chief exec, and Rufus Norris, artistic director, who announced spring and summer plans at a pair of shiny plastic podiums yesterday morning, not in the traditional "cathedral" window of the Olivier Stalls, but in the so-trendy-it-hurts Stygian blackness of the Temporary Theatre, formerly known as The Shed, soon to be known as something else, and then Goodnight Vienna in a couple of years' time.

The Lion of Vienna was the England soccer star Nat Lofthouse (so dubbed after he scored a brace of brave goals in a tough game versus Austria in 1952) and I only mention this because two football fanatics, Patrick Marber and Ian Rickson, are combining on Marber's new football play, The Red Lion, in June. No, it isn't about Lofthouse's secret (and totally unverified) life as an undercover Soviet spy, but "the dying romance of the English game" in the semi-professional minor leagues; Rickson, as far as I know, still kicks balls about, while Marber, a keen Arsenal fan, also has form as a board member at Lewes FC, currently struggling in the nether reaches of the Ryman Premier League.

The cast of The Red Lion is already announced: Calvin Demba, Daniel Mayes and Peter Wight. My guess is they might be player, manager and owner, respectively, whereas Simon Godwin's revival of Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem, opening a month earlier, has no casting yet for Aimwell and Archer, nor Mrs Sullen, one of Maggie Smith's great NT roles as she reminded us at the 50th anniversary gala. Not unreasonably, journalist Jasper Rees asked whom director Polly Findlay might have in mind for Rosalind in As You Like It in November – Patsy Ferran, possibly, Findlay's androgynous Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island? – as you surely wouldn't embark on that play at all unless you had Rosalind signed up.

The NT has twice done As You before, once with an all-male cast in hallucinogenic flower power hippie-drippiness, then, even more bizarrely, with Sara Kestelman as Rosalind and Simon Callow as Orlando, so they owe us a good one. But isn't it slightly depressing that the NT is reviving Harley Granville Barker's oft-revived Waste, admittedly a great play, and returning to August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which wasn't all that great first time round in the Cottesloe in 1989? And the announcement of the D H Lawrence mining trilogy (famously discovered by Peter Gill at the Royal Court in the late 1960s) and new plays by Caryl Churchill and Wallace Shawn sounds safe rather than adventurous, even if Norris referred to these lauded seniors as "Rolls Royce writers."

From the sidelines, new NT associate director Ben Power became seriously overexcited at the prospect of the revival of Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire playing on General Election night (that'll be 7 May), dealing as it does with the levellers and ranters after the Civil War, but if Lyndsey Turner's production makes it even only half as obscure and hard to follow as Max Stafford-Clark's original, I shall eat my cavalier hat and vote Ukip. I must tread warily, too, around Norris's big co-production with the Manchester International Festival on (awful title) with music by Damon Albarn; their over-hyped collaboration on Dr Dee with English National Opera was, well, disappointing.

'Ross and Norris came across as relaxed, open, confident and unfazed'

In the admirable rush to be all things to all men in the name of diversity and inclusivity, the danger is you lose sight of what you really want to do. So you programme short visits of Alice Birch, Tim Crouch and Islington Community Theatre in the Temporary Theatre, ink in a Jane Eyre (haven't we had far too many adaptations of that maudlin fable already?) from Bristol Old Vic, get Marber to do a new version of a hoary old stand-by, Turgenev's A Month in the Country, and programme a revival – surely not another one? – of Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good. Look, I know it's all going to be marvellous – and I can't wait to see Norris's opener in April with Carol Ann Duffy's new take on the medieval classic Everyman (had they not thought of doing an "Everywoman" they were asked, unsurprisingly, by the Observer?) – but quite a lot of this, on paper at least, looks like cold potatoes.

As a performance duo, Ross and Norris came across as relaxed, open, confident and unfazed. That's good, I suppose. Padraic Cusack, ace programme fixer for several NT regimes, reported that, after last year's hit collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland on The James Plays, discussions were ongoing with the NTS, the National Theatre of Wales and indeed anyone else doing anything at all anywhere in the country. That's good, too, I suppose.

But where is the play, the performance, the group of actors, the new designer, who say: this is the National Theatre, this is what we stand for, this is what we care about, and you can jolly well like it or lump it, we're doing what we want? You can't stand for everything and care about everything equally. Norris talked of sharing a privileged position of subsidy and facilities. The NT now sees itself as part of the nation's criss-cross, increasingly homogenised collaborative enterprise throughout the regions. And this is all down, not to idealism or philosophy, but to cut-backs in local authority grants and the collapse of the regional theatre infrastructure as, with only one or two exceptions, a genuine forcing ground of new talent and new audiences.

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