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The National Theatre has solved its Olivier problem

The venue has hit a solid streak recently

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Joseph Fiennes (Gareth Southgate) and the cast of Dear England, © Marc Brenner

Six years ago, Matt Trueman penned an apt blog about the state of the Olivier Theatre at the National – labelling the 1,200-seat space “as unforgiving as Michael Corleone”, and that it needs “overt theatricality… big, muscular plays that can throw punches and take knocks.”

That year was especially naff for the venue – critical duds Salome and Common were certified headscratchers – followed later by the patchy Saint George and the DragonIf anything, it was a rocky moment for Rufus Norris’ time as artistic director – three big, underperforming productions in the main space.

But, since Covid, the memories of 2017 have fled. It’s taken time, and commissioning, but the Olivier has been on a relatively decent streak of top-notch productions and new writing, really since it reopened in 2021.

One aspect of this is no-doubt Norris’ push to add more musicals to the programming mix – with directors that know how to play to its unforgiving amphitheatrical size. Standing at the Sky’s Edge felt like it had organically grown out of the venue’s brutalist architecture, while the magical staging of The Witches, freshly opened, makes the space feel whimsical, whacky and, at times, almost intimate. Whatever you thought of Hex, it had some impressive visual scale.

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The cast of The Witches, © Marc Brenner

But musicals were never the problem, as Trueman notes – if an artistic director is able to use the Olivier perfectly, they have to be able to commission plays that can make the space their own. Step forwards James Graham and Anupama Chandrasekhar, producing two of the most notable new plays in recent history: Graham’s Dear Englandnow transferred to the West End, takes audiences from the locker rooms to the vast expanses of Wembley stadium – it begs for spectacle. Chandrasekhar’s The Father and the Assassin is a contemporary Greek tragedy of fraternity, politics and murder.

Into 2024 – we’ve got Michael Sheen-led Nye, a flashback through the life of the architect of the NHS, described by the venue as a “surreal and spectacular journey”. Norris himself takes on the show – could he keep up this solid streak?