Sunday 3 November 2013

The National Theatre in the 2000s

[A short extract from my chapter in Modern British Playwriting: 2000-2009]

[Given that it’s the National’s 50th Birthday, and that my chapter on the last decade in British Theatre has just been published, and given the number of competing histories that are vying for our attention, I figured rather than knock up a specific response to last night’s Live from the National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage on BBC2 last night, I’d just put this edited extract out there. It comes from a point quite close to the end of the chapter, and thanks to the way I’ve ordered the rest of the thing, other really significant stuff (Shunt, Punchdrunk, Kneehigh, the work of Katie Mitchell) is covered elsewhere. But, well, hopefully this fills in a few of the gaps that might have been left by other recent versions of the last ten years...]

‘What director of the National Theatre wouldn't merit a place on a “most influential people in theatre” list, for heaven's sake? (Answers on a postcard marked ‘Trevor Nunn Competition’ to the usual address, please.)’ – Chris Goode
History has not been kind to Trevor Nunn’s time as artistic director of the National Theatre. Taking over from Richard Eyre in 1997, and being relieved by Nicholas Hytner in 2003, he is now remembered chiefly for putting on a lot of musicals. In the last three-and-a-bit years of his tenure, the part with which this chapter is concerned, he did at the very least hold the reins while some good and/or interesting work passed through the building. David Edgar’s Albert Speer, Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clapp’s Molly House all premièred. Visionary Canadian director Robert LePage’s The Far Side of The Moon visited, and the runaway success that was Gregory Burke’s first play Gagarin Way also transferred from the Traverse Theatre. And there were solid, popular revivals of Gorky’s Summerfolk and, well, some musicals.

Encore Theatre Magazine took a less charitable view: ‘plays like Mutabilitie, or Battle Royal, or Remember This, or The Villains Opera look like the work of a theatre has lost any sense of what it wants to do. They were ill-matched to their theatres, underdeveloped, did not appear to have emerged from any sharpening dialogue with the theatre... At Sir Trevor’s National Theatre there seemed to be no real policy for new writing. Jack Bradley is a good man but he has evidently struggled with an artistic directorship with no instinctive sympathy for the new play.’

More important, and certainly more indicative of the shape of things to come was the Transformation season. In 2002 Nunn hit on the bright idea of constructing two new slightly different “Loft”-style spaces somehow interposed on the Lyttleton. Ticket prices were brought down and the programming was explicitly aimed at grabbing the attention of a younger audience. Former artistic director of the Gate, Mick Gordon, was put in charge as artistic director of these two new spaces. In retrospect Gordon’s programming looks inspired. A great mixture of urgent, sinuous, topical new writing from great emerging playwrights (Roy Williams, Richard Bean, Moira Buffini) alongside an astute mixture of physical, visual and dance theatre (Kathryn Hunter, DV8, Matthew Bourne), and some slightly less successful good-ideas-on-paper (Jeanette Winterson and Deborah Warner’s Power Book and any play by Tanika Gupta).

Looking back over the season at the time Michael Billington grudgingly accounts it only a partial success:
Judging by the National’s own statistics, it would seem to have had some success. The 13 shows have played to about 70% capacity. (Intriguingly, one of the most popular was the critically assailed version of The Birds.) More importantly, just over half the total audience has been under 35. 
But has the season, under Mick Gordon's direction, been an artistic success? Here the results have been more mixed... my impression has been of a dominance of style over content. I remember images from the shows I saw rather than emotions or ideas; my eyes were consistently dazzled, but I left spiritually untransformed.
In this article, as much as in the programming on which it comments, we see seeds of a conflict that was to flare up around the NT again during Nicholas Hytner’s time as artistic director.


Writing in the Guardian in early July 2002, Tom Morris, responding to the question “is this an exciting time for British theatre?”, replied:
In a way, the most exciting time for theatre is when there is the least going on. Radical invention requires a clean slate... So the more tired, conservative and celebrity-driven you think theatre has become, the better the opportunity to make it buzz. The extraordinary thing is that for the first time in 25 years, there is new Arts Council money available to do it with. If I were Nick Hytner taking over the National... I would be leaping with excitement at the opportunities to create something new: not something poised, snappy and chic - as some seem to think the best new theatre is - but something dirty, passionate and wild. If you see Improbable Theatre, Richard Thomas, Frantic Assembly, Complicité and Tom Waits being commissioned to make new work in these spaces, you'll know they're on the right track.
Less than a year after the article was printed, Nicholas Hytner had made Tom Morris an associate director at the National Theatre, and Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera – originally seen as a scratch at Morris’s BAC – had transferred to the Lyttleton; to a riotous chorus of approval:
There could be no clearer sign that the National Theatre is under new management than the arrival of Jerry Springer: the Opera. It’s filthy, it’s funny, it’s brilliantly original and, taken all in all, about as much fun as you are likely to have with your clothes on. (Telegraph)
Within a couple of years, Improbable and Complicité had also produced shows there. Hytner’s own first production at the National as artistic director was also a calculated bit of iconoclasm; dressed in modern British army fatigues, opening only weeks after the US/UK invasion of Iraq, the brilliant black actor Adrian Lester played Henry V to yet more acclaim. Even if the production itself was a little ordinary it was an important statement of intent; here was an NT regime with its sights clearly trained on the 21st century. It is likely, looking back over these first six years of Nick Hytner’s time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, everyone will choose different highlights, but part of the brilliance of Hytner’s regime was its fleet ability to cover all the things people thought a national theatre should be covering, and at the same time introduce new things no one had realised were essential until they arrived, all combined with a commitment to artistic excellence and experimentation.

As well as work by writers, companies and directors already discussed in greater detail in this chapter/book [Shunt, Punchdrunk, Katie Mitchell, Kneehigh, Simon Stephens, Roy Williams, etc.], there was also excellent work from Marianne Elliot, who won a Best Director Evening Standard Award for her production of Ibsen’s Pillars Of The Community (2005) and who, with her production of St Joan in the Olivier (2007), went on to spearhead the National’s move to reclaim the works of George Bernard Shaw for the 21st century; proving plays which had long been regarded as fusty and too wordy could not only be brought back to life, but could prove fascinating mirrors of our own times. Similarly, Nicholas Hytner’s revivals of classic plays, most notably in Man of Mode (2006), demonstrated for a play to reflect modern society it need not have been newly written. Indeed, Hytner had a particularly flair for reflecting contemporary mores in old texts seen again in his productions of The Alchemist (2006) and Major Barbara (2008). Beyond this, alongside Katie Mitchell’s Chekhovs, the National also looked to Russia with Howard Davies’s fine revivals of Gorki’s Philistines (2007), Peter Flannery’s adaptation of the Russian film set in the era of Stalin’s purges, Burnt By The Sun (2009), and Bulgakov’s The White Guard (2010), and Africa for Rufus Norris’s imaginative production of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen (2009).

Although curiously overlooked as a new writing building, the National did in fact stage numerous new plays throughout the decade, as well as works previously discussed elsewhere in the chapter, it had enormous artistic and/or critical successes with Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elminas Kitchen (2003), Simon Stephens’s On the Shore of the Wide World (2005) and Harper Regan (2008), and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2003).

And then there was Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004), which was a phenomenon all of its own. Nominally about a group of boys studying for their Oxbridge exams in Sheffield in the eighties, it was plainly set in a romanticised vision of Bennett’s own youth, with the updated setting thrown in so Bennett could make amusing mischief at the expense of contrarian television historians. Hardly even a play, so much as a set of extended, and gently funny sketches, some songs, and a slight plot playing a younger, more cynical teacher off against an older, more idealistic one. , something about it’s diffident comedy captured the country’s imagination and it sold out the National, then the West End, and then national tours, before becoming a film.

In 2005, a short way into Hytner’s time at the NT, a group of writers calling themselves The Monsterists, including David Eldridge, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Richard Bean and Moira Buffini, formed an artistic pressure group for theatres to start letting living writers write “big plays”. They demanded: ‘The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio “black box” to the main stage; Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers); Use of the very best directors for new plays; Use of the very best actors for new plays.’(Guardian )

Plainly Hytner was listening carefully, as over the next five years, all opening on the National Theatre largest stage, with excellent casts, directors and resources behind them, came the remarkably varied fruits of the Monsterists: David Eldridge’s Market Boy (2006), Rebecca Lenkiewicz Her Naked Skin (2008), Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice (2009) and Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes (2010) – a play about Romford market in the 1980s; a play about the suffragette movement; a history of multicultural Britain focusing on London’s East End, and a mash-up of Greek classical tragedies re-imagined in contemporary Africa.

Alongside these diverse and quirky new commissions, the NT also did sterling work with adaptations of children’s books as Christmas Shows. No consideration of the decade’s theatre would be complete without noting the sheer verve of commissioning a (two-part) adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, replete with giant puppet armoured polar bears and daemons, or the immensely popular follow-up adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy (2005). But it was in 2007 that this strand of commissioning went global. Adapted by Nick Stafford, directed by Tom Morris, Marianne Elliot and in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Theatre Company the National Theatre’s version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is the most widely seen, and surely one of the best-loved, theatre shows of the decade. Telling the story of a young boy and his quest to find his horse after it is pressed into military service in World War One, the real triumph of War Horse was its revelatory use of puppetry to depict the horses. Review after review rhapsodised about the skill of the – visible throughout – puppeteers, and how you somehow forgot they were even there.

 This marriage of what had been, only a few years earlier, deemed “alternative theatre” techniques with mass audience appeal was Tom Morris’s finest hour at the National, confirming his desire for ‘the opportunity to create something new: not something poised, snappy and chic’ had been entirely correct.


[That's pretty much the tidiest place to leave that section. There is lots more in the book...]

[and, just for old times’ sake: here’s the best trailer the NT have ever made, for the thing that is still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen there...

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