Rufus Norris: ‘I think we’re heading into a s**t storm’
The National Theatre’s outward-looking director has had to contend with an increasingly inward-looking Britain
Rufus Norris at a rehearsal of Macbeth in the Royal National Theatre London
In conversation, Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre of London, can sound a little like a foreign correspondent, bringing alarming news in dispassionate language, like an urgent dispatch. His attentions tend to face outward, with informed discussion about the ethical negligence of the world’s big tech companies, for instance, or how insular politics among nations will hasten the worst consequences of climate change.
Refreshingly, he considers questions carefully, avoiding prepared responses. But he remains rough enough around the edges to still be personable. “Sorry, I have to try not to swear in interviews,” he says at one moment, when the conversation turns to Tory party arts policies. “I’ve been told not to swear.”
That personality - approachable, curious and widely admired - is evident in the unusual path that brought him to lead the National – not as a Cambridge-educated professional director, like almost all of his predecessors, but as a former actor who trained first at RADA before gravitating towards directing. Shortly before we met, Norris made an unscheduled appearance on one of his own stages, filling in last minute for an injured actor. By all accounts, he acquitted himself well. The son of an overseas civil servant, who grew up in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Malaysia, and later worked frequently in Palestine, he seems alert, serious, ready for anything.
But with Macbeth, his large-scale production of Shakespeare, and only the second time he has directed the playwright’s work in 25 years, Norris can resemble someone struggling to understand what went wrong.
Conceived in 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, and delivered in 2018, when its consequences were becoming bitterly apparent within a deeply divided nation, this Macbeth takes place against a post-apocalyptic landscape strewn with detritus, torn apart by civil war. To an outsider, that might look like a globalist’s fears writ large.
“Certainly, that wasn’t what was at the front of my mind,” Norris says, hunching over a coffee in Dublin on so foul and fair a day. “But inevitably these things don’t have to be at the front of your mind to dictate how you make decisions. I grew up all over the world. I think there is a movement – and certainly Brexit was an expression of it - to deny our inter-dependence internationally, to deny our colonial history and the relationships and responsibility we have as a result, that is inevitably going to lead us to a bad place.” Characteristically, he reaches for a wider lens, involving Donald Trump’s roll back on even symbolic climate commitments, the worrying election of far-right strongman Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new president, and the violent protests of Paris’s “gilet jaunes”, rioting over fuel tax. Like Macbeth, a tragedy of expedience and isolation, actions taken in narrow self-interest amount to some awful consequences.
Norris never mentioned Brexit in his discussions with the acclaimed designer Rae Smith, however, referring instead to sights they had both witnessed elsewhere: in the Balkans, the West Bank, Africa and Asia, the miserable conditions brought about by conflagration and deprivation. “It’s a post-apocalyptic world,” Norris says of his imagined Scotland for Macbeth, “but the apocalypse is not nuclear war, it’s largely ecological devastation.” That, he says wryly, is a threat far more grave than the disorder of leaving the EU. “I just don’t think we’re important enough for that to be the end of the world.”
Still, Brexit forced Norris to reckon with the question of what nation the National Theatre hoped to represent. Shortly after the results, he commissioned a rapid-reaction play called My Country: A Work in Progress, for which writers scoured the UK, from Derry to Newcastle, Glasgow to Cymru, gathering opinions that reflected current sentiments. “There was no agenda other than to listen,” Norris says. “It’s very easy for people in urban centres to say, ‘I know better than you’ - that kind of patronisation which people had clearly kicked back against. What emerged for me very strongly were two things: people were protesting against the breakdown of community and the inequality of opportunity.”
As Norris puts it, that applies to culture too. Last year, in response, the National Theatre toured ten productions, more than any other time in its history, while also staging community projects on its vast Olivier stage and beginning long-term programmes in regional centres. “The theatre has a real role to play,” Norris says, “because a theatre is a community centre.”
That’s an suprisingly earthy way to describe the National Theatre. This is, after all, a theatre currently hosting Ralph Fiennes on its stage in a celebrated production of Anthony and Cleopatra, while awaiting Cate Blanchett’s appearance later this month in When We Have Tortured Each Other Sufficiently (which, it seems necessary to say, is not a Brexit drama). It is also enjoying several West End transfers, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and, Nine Night by Natasha Gordon, a Norris discovery, which is the first ever West End production of a play by a black British female playwright.
In the meantime, hot on the heels of a celebrated New York transfer of Angels in America, the National’s production of Network, directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Bryan Cranston, is currently the toast of Broadway. If this is a community centre, that’s quite an outreach programme.
“It’s sort of what the job is,” Norris says of programming box-office smashes with artistic credibility. “It’s a balance between excellence and mission.” In 2018, the third year of Norris’s tenure, the National operated at over 90 per cent capacity for a third straight year. “And we need to be,” he says. “Our subsidy is falling. We have to look at how we keep the financial health of the organisation in good nick through whatever comes. We’re a national theatre. We’re supposed to be there for everyone.”
One of the National Theatre’s occassional visitors is Theresa May, the prime minister of Britain, whom Norris has met several times. If Macbeth asks us to empathise with a leader laid low by his ambition to rule, following malign influence towards chaos and self-destruction, one wonders what May would have made of the show.
“In the end, what’s theatre about?” asks Norris. “It’s about inviting an audience to stand in the shoes of other people; to take the imaginative leap to go, what would it be like if I were you?” Has he been able to empathise with Theresa May, to put himself in her shoes?
“I think in many ways part of her survival is to be armoured. She’s very closed. So, no, I don’t feel like [I know her at all].” Norris may have little political affinity with the prime minister, but he was impressed nonetheless by her competence at a recent Downing Street event for Britain’s Creative Industries. Norris used the occasion to door step her with a particularly esoteric question. May finished his sentence – “You want to talk about lighting.” – before reeling off a multi-point plan to deal with new EU Lighting regulations. (There was no mention of a backstop.)
For his part, Norris is fascinatingly even-handed about his own criticism, accepting it while still standing over his work, where his predecessor, Hytner, used to be enjoyably combative. This might be just as well, though, because his production of Macbeth received some especially scathing reviews when it opened last year, with a sneering focus on Norris’s relative inexperience with directing Shakespeare.
In terms of my personal response, I think almost inevitably when you feel like kicking out against criticism it’s because you’re personally hurt. And that’s the game that we’re in.
With curious consensus, London critics rubbished its aesthetic (“ugly-to-behold” said the Telegraph; “harsh to look at”, complained the Guardian; “aggressively ugly” chimed in The Stage), bemoaning that an intimate drama had been spread across a cavernous space, while taking issue, more predictably, with cuts to the text. Much of this reminds you how much latitude British theatre affords Shakespeare’s international interpreters, from the celebrated work of the Toneelgroep’s Van Hove (which is harsh to look at) to Thomas Ostermeier’s brilliant and radical interpretations for the Schaubuhne (which are aggressively ugly).
“Well, look, I’m human,” Norris says of the panning. “That hurt. There’s no two ways about it.” He discussed the experience with Hytner and Richard Eyre, which came after a series of poorly received shows at the Olivier. “In terms of my personal response, I think almost inevitably when you feel like kicking out against criticism it’s because you’re personally hurt. And that’s the game that we’re in.” Still, there’s more than a little truth in his suggestion that people tend to shy from ecological warnings, partly because our own helplessness is too much to bear.
The word Norris uses most to discuss his interpretation of Macbeth, moreover, is “survival”, a term as familiar to environmentalists as it is to politicians, or, for that matter, directors of the National Theatre.
Norris describes the chaos of 11th century Scotland, Shakespeare’s setting, where “everybody’s rebelling, you’ve got invaders coming in, and it’s much more akin to the end of a long civil war, like something we can see in our contemporary world… It’s about what human beings are prepared to do to survive.”
It’s hard to say if Macbeth, a play so steeped in blood that it is marked by invisible daggers and indelible blood stains, is a profoundly pessimistic work or a slyly optimistic one. After all, Shakespeare concocted it as an entertainment for his patron, King James, himself an authority on witches, who could here watch divine order restored and the eventual triumph of his ancestors. Does Norris see cause for hope – in the theatre, in the world – or, as his dystopian production suggests, should we prepare for the worst?
“I’m a natural optimist,” he says, summoning all the insouciance of an overworked undertaker. Of the theatre, he says, touching all wood within reach, “we’re doing ok. A lot of the more outward-looking mission that we’re driving is being embraced.”
And what about that bigger stage, all the world? “In terms of where the world is going, I’m not optimistic at all,” he says. “I think we’re heading into a s**t storm.” That may count as swearing in an interview. But ugly times call for harsh truths.
The Royal National Theatre’s production of Macbeth, directed by Rufus Norris, runs at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from Jan 15-19.