New National Theatre director defends public subsidy

The man named on Tuesday as the next director of the National Theatre has defended public subsidies for theatre, arguing it is “a huge part of what makes this country a tourist magnet”.

Rufus Norris will take up the most prestigious role in British theatre when he replaces Sir Nicholas Hytner in April 2015.

Speaking to the Financial Times, the 48-year-old associate director at the National said theatres fully deserved public funding. “We lead the world in our theatre-making. It’s a huge part of what makes this culture strong and a huge part of what makes this country a tourist magnet . . . No matter what people say, subsidy has a massive impact on this.”

Mr Norris will inherit an institution in good financial shape, thanks partly to income generated by hit productions such as War Horse, which was made into a Hollywood film. Last year’s Arts Council England subsidy accounted for 20 per cent of total income, compared with 40 per cent a decade ago.

In spite of the government’s decision in June to cap its latest cuts to arts bodies at 5 per cent – a better outcome than many had feared – Mr Norris is nonetheless cautious about the future.

“There are probably two major factors. Is our economy in recovery? If it’s not, we’re certainly not out of the woods. And which government are we likely to get at the next election? That will also have a big influence,” he said.

A Rada-trained former actor, Mr Norris’s directorial breakthrough came with Afore Night Come at the Young Vic, for which he won an Evening Standard Best Newcomer Award in 2001. Another piece of work he remains proud of is Festen, which was adapted by David Eldridge for the Almeida in 2004 and later transferred to Broadway, winning a Critics’ Circle Award.

Once attacked for its lack of “risk-taking”, the National has made some bold choices under Sir Nicholas, a trend Mr Norris intends to maintain. He says he “pulls ideas from wherever I can”, whether puppetry, dance or audio-visual input.

“Theatre in its essence is a celebration of an imaginative relationship between an audience and a story being told by actors. The more interesting and exciting ways those stories can be told the better,” he said.

Mr Norris says he will be “more collegiate” than Sir Nicholas, partly because he does not have “anywhere near the classical knowledge that Nick has”. But he adds: “If you’ve got ten people in the room that’s ten brains, ten creative resources.”

Music has often played a central role in his productions. This year’s production of The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, described by the Financial Times as a “joyous, music-soaked production”, followed Cabaret in 2006, and Dr Dee, a 2011 opera collaboration with Damian Albarn, the musician.

In fact his love of music predates his involvement with the theatre. Before he became an actor, Mr Norris played violin in pit orchestras in the Midlands, and later guitar or keyboard in a series of bands, while earning money by busking on the streets.

He is a firm believer in the combined power of music and theatre. “Music can get to you emotionally. It bypasses the intellect entirely.”

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