Thursday 16 February 2017

Nunn's tenure at the National and the perhaps unhelpful binary of new/old work

This is a quick response post on the article published today in The Stage where Trevor Nunn said that the ‘National Theatre has duty to both new work and classics’. His comment is in response to Michael Billington’s article, my thoughts on which can be partly read here.

So, I realise Trevor Nunn’s time as Artistic Director of the National was quite controversial. This is mainly because it is seen that he upped the amount of commercial productions staged, especially musicals, with some not liking that public money helped to fund My Fair Lady which went on to have commercial gains. However, he did achieve a balance between the amount of revivals and new plays he staged between 1997 and 2003. There were just under 50 new works staged at the NT under his time as AD, including Patrick Marber’s Closer, Tanika Gupta’s The Waiting Room and a world premiere of a Tennessee Williams’ play, Not About Nightingales. There were roughly 40 revivals (if anything slightly less than the amount of new work), including A Streetcar Named Desire, No Man’s Land and The Duchess of Malfi. I should note that about nine of these were Shakespeare plays which Billington excludes from his thoughts on revivals. But overall, it is quite a healthy balance.

But Nunn was AD for a shorter time than (I imagine) Norris is hoping to be at the National and so Norris’ longer term plans might be different. What’s more, to reiterate what I said in my last blog post on this, Norris is staging revivals this year including work by Shakespeare, Kushner and Sondheim, and has staged many revivals so far in his tenure. Also, I agree with what one writer said (I forget which), that in a time of potential political turbulence regarding Brexit and Trump, our National Theatre should be leading the way with work that that helps us understand the changing politics – although revivals can do this as well, Hytner’s production of Henry V is often a popular example of that.

My main point though is that this new obsession with the binary of ‘new/ old work’ is a possibly problematic view of how theatre is and should be made. During Nunn’s tenure, he staged about 20 works based on old texts given new versions, such as Ostrovsky’s The Forest (1871) in a new version by Ayckbourn, The Villains’ Opera based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan (1940-43) in a new version by Tanika Gupta. Norris has done similar things with Marber’s Three Days in the Country, after Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, Marber’s new version of Hedda Gabler and Suhayla El-Bushra’s The Suicide after Erdman. Billington’s views, in my opinion, come with an underlying belief that the writer is autonomous and highly regarded. This is perhaps an old-fashioned way of looking at theatre making. Rather than the black and white Venn Diagram sort of programming that only sees productions on terms of whether they are old or new, isn’t it better to also remember how they can be based on older texts even if they are reworked to a more contemporary style and practice? I don’t know how planning a season at the National works (but I imagine it’s difficult!) but I imagine a lot of different boxes have to ticked and many quotas met. I’d prefer for the NT to carry on trying to concentrate on whether diversity (and all of the many things which that word encompasses) is being achieved rather than strictly having to ensure that they are balancing the amount of old work and the amount of new work that they are producing.

The National Theatre do have a duty to stage both classics and new work, which I personally think they are achieving, but thinking of their productions in a more fluid way rather than just the black and white terms of ‘is it new or is it old?’ might help how we see and approach theatre-making to move forward.

I have been referring to Daniel Rosenthal’s tome The National Theatre Story for statistics.

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