Rufus Norris: 'Now is not a time to be polite'

We talk to the National Theatre’s artistic director as he announces his latest season at the theatre

Rufus Norris in rehearsal for
Rufus Norris in rehearsal for
© Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

"A theatre is a community centre," the artistic director of the National Theatre Rufus Norris tells me as we meet ahead of his latest season launch.

I must admit, I'd be pretty surprised if the likes of Walter White strolled through the doors of my local community centre, but he certainly will be coming to Norris'. Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston, it has been announced today, is the latest addition to the illustrious line up of actors to tread the boards at the NT under Norris' tenure. He will be making his UK theatre debut in Lee Hall's adaptation of the '70s drama film Network in November this year.

As Norris explains, youth clubs are closing, bingo halls have shut, church congregations are getting smaller. Theatres, goes Norris' argument, should be – and are – filling the gaps these community spaces are leaving. And if you spend any time during the day at the National Theatre, it certainly feels like a welcoming, local space. The new café is open plan and the foyer is easier to navigate after a redesign. During the day, groups of school children, young adults, old adults and young professionals wander past its concrete walls.

'Bryan Cranston isn't an idiot. He's not going to turn up just to be at the National. It's the whole package'

Throw into that mix some of the most exciting acting, directing, writing and creative talent around and you have what I would describe as the best community centre in the entire world. Cranston is the latest in a roster of big, big names to arrive at stage door: by the end of this year we will have seen Oscar-nominee Andrew Garfield, American legend Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, Russell Tovey, musical stars Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee, Ruth Wilson and Lucian Msamati. Not to mention Rory Kinnear returning with Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth. Is Norris subtly turning the NT into an actor's theatre?

The answer to that, according to Norris himself, is no. "If you look at the famous actors who have worked here recently, they are all fantastic theatre actors. That's the point.

"Of course actors like Bryan or Nathan are going to draw the headlines, but they aren't going to come unless there is an idea. Lee Hall is a brilliant writer, Network is a brilliant story, Ivo [van Hove, who is directing] and Jan [Versewyveld, his designer] are an amazing team. Bryan's not an idiot, he's not going to turn up just to be at the National Theatre. It's the whole package."

'I haven't focussed on Shakespeare partly because there have been so many great directors who have done it'

He has a point: most of us may know Cranston for the hit TV series where he played a cancer sufferer who turns to meth manufacturing, but let's not forget that he's also a Tony Award-winner. "It's about breadth," explains Rufus. "If I have one word which describes what we are trying to do here it's that. Breadth of audience, breadth of programme, breadth of national reach, diversity and the artists we're inviting to make work."

And if you look at the new season, his words ring true. Yes he has acting magnets, but he's also got star writers and directors too. There's the European premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker's new play John – directed by James Macdonald; there's a new play in the Olivier by Rory Mullarkey about Saint George (that makes three new plays running in the Olivier this year, which is unheard of); Harry Potter and the Cursed Child director John Tiffany is staging Disney's Pinocchio over Christmas; Polly Findlay directs David Eldridge's new play Beginning in the Dorfman and Rob Drummond will bring a new one-man show about democracy called The Majority to the theatre too.

And within all that mad hubbub, Norris himself will be directing. He's taking on Macbeth and it will be the first time he's directed a Shakespeare play in over 25 years. He last directed a play by the Bard in 1992, in a tiny fringe theatre in London. Why has it taken him this long to get to another one?

'I hope we can really start to engage more with European drama'

"I haven't focused on his work or on classics generally partly because there have been so many great directors who have done it and I am drawn to the new, to the great writers of the future." But, funnily enough, he floated the idea of Macbeth at the Roundabout theatre in New York with Kinnear and Duff "years ago" but it never came to anything. "Now we're building the team and I'm thinking ‘Oh shit, what am I going to do?'" he laughs.

Does he have a plan? A radical reworking (shock horror – not another #Ricegate) of the text? It sounds not. He says he wants to "sit down in the room with the two of them [Duff and Kinnear] and with an expert who really understands, in all the ways that I don't, what that play is, so we can just go line by line."

Line by line, step by step is something Norris is familiar with in his programming work. Network, for example, has been a while coming. Initially it was van Hove who said he wanted to work with Cranston and getting Cranston on board was a long process. Norris hasn't watched much of Breaking Bad ("I am Billy No Mates. I have no life, I go to work. I never watch TV") but his youngest son is a fan. "Though it has obviously been a secret, all the way down the line, as we've been trying to make it happen, he is the person I have been talking to about it," Norris says, "And every week he's been saying – have you got him?"

'There are certain parts of what we do that we won't be able to sustain if we have to shrink our budgets'

Given the length of negotiations, it is surprising how relevant a programming decision Network feels. Cranston will play anchor man Howard Beale, in the adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 film. One of the things the film is most famous for is the character's rant about the state of America. "It is timely," says Norris, "somebody sent me a photo the other day of an image from the march in Washington DC and it had a huge placard of a still of Network."

It's fair to say that America has loomed large both in his and in his predecessor Nick Hytner's seasons. But though Norris wants that to "deepen" and continue, he also wants to work on their European programming. "I hope that over the next few years we can really start to follow the lead that's been set by the Young Vic and the Barbican in engaging more with European drama," he explains. He also has his sights set on Canada, New Zealand and Australia. So many places, in fact, that he's occasionally been – in his words – "smacked down". "We are already at full tilt, so we have to do things one step at a time."

In fact, it seems Norris has settled into his stride. After a rocky beginning "it was a tough first year" – where he faced criticism from reviewers and the press as well as the sudden departure of his chief executive Tessa Ross, he looks relaxed. Box office takings are good, the many tours (including a new one of People, Places and Things just announced) are bringing in money. "It feels like the organisation is more and more mission led. We all know what we are doing and why we are doing it."

More than ever, it seems, Norris is also aware of the importance of being a cultural organisation that can stand up for itself in a troubling, unstable arts climate. Funding-wise, of course the National Theatre is better off than most, but it's not that simple, says Norris. "There are certain parts of what we do that we won't be able to sustain if we have to shrink our budgets. We've got to make the best argument for the fact that the cultural industries in this country are massively important," he explains.

"It's not a time to be polite and quiet about it," he adds. Indeed, and in a place like the National Theatre, it's not hard to see the way theatre can connect, engage, galvanise and delight a vast number of people. It's one hell of a community centre.

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