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Rufus Norris’s opening lines

The new director of the National Theatre in London meets the press

Robert Butler | October 15th 2013

The stage was set for a revelation: the arts press had been invited to the National Theatre for 10.45am when the board's chairman, John Makinson, would introduce the person taking over the biggest job in British theatre, possibly even world theatre. There have only been five directors in the National's history: Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and—for 18 months more—Nicholas Hytner. All male; four out of five Oxbridge; was anything about to change?

The theatre critics, arts journalists and photographers took their seats in front of a large window in the foyer of the Olivier that looks across the Thames. There were two lift entrances to the left, two to the right: perhaps, after an uplifting oration from the chairman, one set of lift doors would part, and the new director would step forward.
But then a curious piece of anti-theatre took place—there was to be no dramatic suspense. Before the conference started, a press officer handed out a press release headlined "Rufus Norris to succeed Nicholas Hytner"; she added the news had just been tweeted (to the NT's 109,0000 followers). As the journalists were waiting, the chairman was making the same announcement in the Lyttelton theatre to the theatre's employees. 

A few minutes later, Makinson, Hytner and Norris strolled across the foyer from the Lyttelton and took their seats on the podium. As entrances go, it was as unshowy as showbiz gets. Norris, who trained at RADA and worked for several years as an actor, looked equally understated in a grey suit and grey shirt. He only learnt yesterday that he had been appointed (the board had met in the morning). He had gone home, had tea with his two sons and told them about the new job. "They took the piss out of me." Others were more effusive: the NT staff had greeted the news with a standing ovation, Hytner told the press he "couldn't be more delighted", and Intelligent Life's deputy editor and theatre previewer, Isabel Lloyd, emailed me to say "Yay!"

A while back, Norris had said he didn't want the job, but he changed his mind, he said, when he began to believe he could do it. His main motive was that he wanted "to be part of a bigger story". He has the movie version of "London Road" to make next summer. After that, "I'm chained to this place, very happily".

Was he nervous? "Of course I'm nervous. I'm as loaded with self-doubt as everyone else in this room."

What did he think were his main qualities? "I know how to listen to people. I'm very collegiate, very collaborative. I'm not afraid of not having the answers."

What was it like to be the first non-Oxbridge director since Olivier? "Many times I've regretted that I played in bands and was a painter and decorator for four years when I could have been at university. But I'm here."

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