A LETTER FROM LONDON: The National Announces New Director and The Light Princess' Effects Dazzle
By Ruth Leon
The monthly missive from Across the Pond offers an insider's look into the Royal National Theatre's new director and a first glimpse of Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson's new musical The Light Princess.
It's official. The new director of Britain's Royal National Theatre is Rufus Norris. This is a popular choice, especially among actors who love him, but a slightly unexpected one. Despite his coming up fast as favorite over the past few weeks, he's an outsider, not of the mould of the five previous directors — all of whom are from the same hothouse educational institution of Cambridge University. This one is different. Born in Africa, brought up in Malaysia, and educated in a state school in Birmingham, he doesn't fit the perfectly groomed cookie-cutter cookies that we've seen before. His first college was the Kidderminster College of Further Education before he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to study acting. While he was trying to be an actor, he played for four years in an indie rock band and paid his rent by working as a housepainter. He wasn't, he said, very good at it.
When the announcement was made to the staff, in the National's Lyttelton Theatre, a cheer went up that could be heard all over the concrete palace that constitutes our symbol of great drama on the South Bank of the Thames. It was louder, chuckled the outgoing director, Nicholas Hytner, than anything heard in this building since Alfie first fell down the stairs in One Man, Two Guvnors.
Rufus is likeable, no question about that. He has warmth and charm and a way of persuading, rather than insisting, which makes him popular, indeed loved, by the actors he works with. He's extremely good-looking in a dark-and-handsome way, and married to the playwright Tanya Ronder with two teenage sons.
And he's done some really fine work as a play director, not only at the National, where he's been an associate director for the past two years, but also at the Young Vic and in the West End. But there were other, better-known and arguably more distinguished names in the frame for the top job, among them actor/director Kenneth Branagh; Ed Hall, son of the National's second Director, Sir Peter Hall, and himself head of Hampstead Theatre and of Propeller, the all-male Shakespeare company; Phyllida Lloyd, whose all-female production of Julius Caesar is currently playing in New York; and Stephen Daldrey who, having run the Royal Court before setting out as a freelance director of genius with productions as different as An Inspector Calls and Billy Elliot behind him, would have seemed the obvious candidate.
Norris is no slouch though. His most innovative work, London Road, initially in the National's smallest auditorium, would seem an impossible ask — a verbatim opera where the authors, composer Adam Cork and librettist Alecky Blythe, with their director Rufus Norris — constructed a compelling drama based on the actual words of the residents of the street in the West Country where a series of serial murders of prostitutes happened in 2006. That he wove this into a cohesive whole was an extraordinary theatrical feat and brought him to our attention as his other, more conventional productions of Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka, David Eldridge's Market Boy at the National and his West End Cabaret and award-winning productions of Festen and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, had not. Recently, the one that really grabbed my attention was his production of The Amen Corner, an exquisitely detailed re-examination of James Baldwin's reaffirmation of Black American faith that made us all sit up and watch. Suddenly, Rufus Norris was receiving accolades such as 'great'.
For the next 18 months, Norris will be working in tandem with the National's outgoing director, Nicholas Hytner — a long handover that would, I suspect, not happen in an American theatre. When Nick finally leaves the National, he will leave an institution in better shape than he found it, administratively and artistically. He has overseen the start of what will eventually be a complete rebuild of the unwieldy complex, one in which, at least, we now know where the entrance is! His adventurous programming has brought audiences into the National who would never otherwise have been there and, with diverse music, excellent visual arts exhibitions, and buzzy bars, made its lobbies destinations in their own right. Recently, waiting for a friend, I shared a table with a woman carrying a briefcase. "Which play are you going to?" I asked, knowing that on that evening there were performances in the Olivier, the Lyttelton and the Cottesloe. "Oh, I'm not going to a play tonight," she said, "I often come here on my way from work for a drink and to listen to the music."
The National, which has always been ugly and difficult to negotiate, is still both of those, but it's now user-friendly and one of the best places in London to hang out. That, almost as much as the nobable plays his leadership has brought to our attention, is Nicholas Hytner's legacy.
I had a low tolerance for fairy tales, even when I was of an age when I should have appreciated the 'wonder' of them. At six, I was a practical little thing, unable to appreciate princesses unless they lived up the street in Buckingham Palace, and I came unequipped with the suspension of disbelief that would have allowed me to enjoy "Cinderella" or "Snow White." (Now I come to think of it, lack of suspension of disbelief is a funny sort of qualification to become a theatre critic.) There's a long scholarly piece in the National's programme for Tori Amos' The Light Princess by the academic Marina Warner about the importance of fairy tales to the moral development of children. All I can say is my moral development was sadly neglected. I just never got it, and I still don't.
The wonder that I can appreciate is the joy of seeing an extremely difficult piece of theatre almost perfectly executed. The Light Princess is, to me, a silly story of a prince from a seafaring country who is so shocked by his mother's death that he can no longer smile (sounds like a good reason to me) until he meets a princess from a neighbouring desert country who is so shocked by her mother's death that she loses gravity and floats above the ground until they meet and he learns to smile and she learns... to swim.
At least, I think that's what happens. I lost interest in the plot shortly after The Light Princess started, but I was rivetted by the stagecraft that makes the production happen. The princess is borne aloft by an assortment of wires and sturdy black-clad 'invisible' men who lift her and move her into the impossible upside-down positions that her lack of gravity imposes on her. This is so brilliantly planned that after a while you really do think she's floating. This must be down to the aerial effects designer, Paul Rubin, but the imagination and practical ideas of the director, Marianne Elliott (co-director of War Horse) and her large team of designers cannot be overestimated. The actors sing beautifully, even when doing idiotic things on parapets and in simulated lakes, and all the performances, especially that of Rosalie Craig as the eponymous princess of the title, are as superb as we expect from the National.
The physical execution of this fairy story is so extraordinary that even I, who don't care for Tori Amos' music and hate fairy tales one and all, will go back again and again to see The Light Princess. It is productions such as this one which justify the existence of the Royal National Theatre, to give it its proper title, as work on this scale cannot be accomplished in the commercial sector. No Broadway musicals producer, even the most foolhardy, would ever conceive of a show on this scale. Despite the lavishness of Big Fish and Kinky Boots, imagination on this level would be unimaginable on the other side of the Atlantic. Or even on this side, in the absence of a National Theatre.
(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)
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