The Corner Shop

13th April 2017

The positive impact of Lyn Gardner’s blog on our industry has been immeasurable. Our first response on hearing that it was to be discontinued was to ask her to write something for our Quarterly and we are so happy that she agreed to do this on a subject of her choosing. Thank you Lyn.

“I think that bloody old National nearly killed me,” said Sir Laurence Olivier about his time as artistic director of the National Theatre between 1963 and 1973, a period when the struggle to get the current building on the South Bank built was underway.

Olivier may have had to deal with in-fighting and squabbling around the construction and artistic leadership of the new National Theatre, but at least the idea of what national and theatre both meant was far less disputed 50 years ago than they are today.

We now don’t have just one National Theatre, but three. Or rather four if you count (and we should) the Welsh Language national company Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru. The National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales, both theatres without walls, have challenged the idea of what a national theatre might look like, and interrogated what theatre can and might be.

Lifted By Beauty: Adventures in Dreaming, National Theatre Wales

Under Rufus Norris the NT has started to do likewise. You’d be a fool not to in a world where any national theatre has the potential to be a source of pride and a mechanism to explore who we are and who we might be, but which can also be seen as a monster gobbling up resources. Particularly at a time when funding, whether for the NHS or the arts, is in short supply.

What’s fascinating is that all three of these national theatres find themselves with new or relatively new leadership at the most testing of times when the very notion of national identity is under debate and when theatre is seeking to understand its place in a UK increasingly fractured following the vote for Brexit.

In the circumstances, it can’t be business as usual, and it’s therefore undoubtedly a good thing that all three organisations have leaders who are still fresh to the job. In the case of Jackie Wylie, the former artistic director of the much-missed Arches in Glasgow, she has barely got her feet under the table only arriving at NTS new Rockvilla headquarters in Glasgow in March. Kully Thiarai, who took up her role with National Theatre Wales last year will announce her first fully fledged season shortly, and Norris is just two years into the job, one made all the more difficult by the critical and box office success of his predecessor, Nicholas Hytner, and the fact that Norris is operating in a very different social and political landscape. Sometimes critics and audiences just want more of the same, even when the same no longer really serves.

What’s interesting is that all three reflect a very different kind of leadership. Norris is the first NT supremo who wasn’t educated at Oxbridge, and Wylie has worked with a wide range of artists including many who would define themselves first and foremost as theatre-makers rather than playwrights. Thiarai is only the second woman to lead a national company (Vicky Featherstone was NTS’ inaugural AD), the first Asian to do so and her career has been mostly in regional theatre and often within community contexts. She was instrumental in ensuring that when it opened in 2013 Cast became Doncaster’s living room, a place where there was a sofa for everyone, even those who doubted the role arts had to play in their lives.

In a theatre culture that still struggles with diversity, particularly when it comes to those leading flagship projects and buildings, this shift in leadership at all three companies is both overdue and welcome. Because the real question facing any national theatre, wherever it is located and whether it has walls or not, is what is its purpose, what is its role within a wider theatre ecology, what and whose stories will it help to tell and who does it currently serve and who might it yet serve.

Even back in 1904 when William Archer and Harley Granville Barker were setting out their proposal for a National Theatre in A National Theatre: Scheme and Estimates they argued: “It must not ever have the air of appealing to a specially literate and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakeably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community.”

It might be argued that the National Theatre, perched on the South Bank and occasionally taking popular shows to the regions, hasn’t always done that as well as it could. As Rufus Norris observed on Radio 4 in the wake of the Brexit vote: “Art always responds to the time, and this has been a huge wake-up call for all of us to realise that half the country feels they have no voice. If we are going to be a national organisation we must speak to and for the nation,” he said suggesting that theatre had to learn to listen and the art would follow from that. Whatever its merits, My Country: a Work in Progress, the verbatim piece made with voices from outside London and touring to venues beyond London, reflects that new sense of mission to listen.

By their very nature, and because they are theatres without walls, NTS and NTW, have always had to have wide open ears. There is something humbling for artists to realise that wherever they are making work they are mere guests in that community and must behave accordingly. One of the great achievements of NTW has been its ability to embed within communities in projects such as The Passion in Port Talbot, The Gathering in Snowdonia or the recent Lifted by Beauty: Adventures in Dreaming in the seaside town of Rhyl.

The Spanish painter Joan Miro once observed that to be truly universal you have first to be local. But for any national theatre that is a conundrum: how can you possibly reflect the multitudes of perspectives and identities and senses of self that co-exist in any country and which are influenced by landscape, industry, economics, personal experience and history?

Lifted By Beauty: Adventures in Dreaming, National Theatre Wales

In earlier era, when theatre almost always meant a well-made play and when national was seen as a unifying and homogeneous concept that reflected a shared view of the world, one often handed down via the history books, state, church and the institutions of authority, a National Theatre knew what it was and how it should operate. It could claim to reflect national pride and a nation’s sense of itself. It was itself a symbol of authority.

But in post-Brexit world and a UK that looks increasingly divided and discordant it’s a much more tricky undertaking. Just as the term theatre now means many different things so the term national must reflect many diverse identities, widely differing needs and ideas about what it means to be both a community and a nation.

Theatre finds itself in a potentially unique position with its ability to bring people together in a shared space and be a crucible in which people can come together and where difference can be both acknowledged and celebrated. But if our National Theatres, together with communities and artists and venues across the country, are to be that crucible both bravery and visionary leadership will be required. Lucky we have Jackie, Kully and Rufus in place, ready to prove themselves the right people at the right time and willing to say to artists, audiences and communities: “I don’t know. What do you think?” And really hear the answers.

Lyn Gardner

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