A collage of images including Britain's National Theater
Illustration by The Atlantic*

The State of the National

How Britain’s biggest theater reflects the country’s identity crisis.

The National Theatre barely sleeps. The last bar staff leave the hulking building on the south bank of the River Thames in Central London at 3 a.m. The first goods trucks arrive at 6 a.m.

Rufus Norris doesn’t sleep much either. All artistic directors are plate spinners, but being in charge of the National, which employs about 4,000 people, is particularly demanding. Norris is the closest thing British theater has to a prime minister, and he takes ultimate responsibility for the National’s programming, staffing, live broadcasts to cinemas, education programs, partnerships with regional theaters, development, donors, and media relations. The job is all-consuming: His first meeting often starts at 8:30 a.m., and he usually stays late to watch a performance. Bad luck if it’s a weighty European classic or one of the longer Shakespeare plays; he won’t make it home until midnight. (His “red line” is the weekend every month when he visits his mother, who has dementia. “That’s the one thing that’s completely sacrosanct,” he told me.)

Leading the National Theatre is a tough job because everyone’s a critic, even the playwrights and directors who spend their life moaning about actual critics. Their demands can be loud, raucous, and difficult to reconcile—much like those of British voters. In British theater, just as in Britain overall, the past decade has been a time of austerity. The National is the flagship of the country’s subsidized theater sector, and public money is supposed to allow it to take risks and nurture unproven talent. But its state grant has been cut by 30 percent in real terms since 2010. Further reductions are expected under the newly reelected Conservative Party, which is traditionally skeptical of government funding for art, and is considering the abolition of the government department responsible for culture.

The National has also been battered by questions about its priorities. Like the Brexit debate, this has a populist dimension. Should it be making big hits, or “important” work? Should it be reaching out to audiences around the country, or drawing them toward its London home? Are minority and women artists getting enough opportunities? Is the audience too white, too old, too rich? And then there’s Brexit itself, which has exposed a division in values right down the middle of the country. How can British theater—an industry filled with people who voted to remain in the European Union—make art that speaks to and represents the 52 percent who voted to leave?

All this boils down to a single, fundamental question: Is the National Theatre primarily an artistic project, or a social one? As it happens, the Arts Council, which doles out the state’s money, has inadvertently created a shorthand for this debate. When it released its funding criteria for the new decade, it announced that theaters would be judged on “relevance”—a word that appears 13 times in its 19-page document—rather than the previous standard of “excellence.”

The choice facing the National, then, is a stark one. Excellence is a proven formula. It sells. High-profile writers, top directors, and celebrity actors plus tried-and-tested classics equals bums on seats. There is a ready-made audience for a Shakespeare play with a well-known name, such as Simon Russell Beale or Ralph Fiennes, in the title role. Excellence is safer, too, because the National now has to generate serious box-office returns: Shrinking state investment means it must rely on transferring its plays to the commercial sector to balance the books. In his memoir, Balancing Acts, its former artistic director Nicholas Hytner estimates that a single play, War Horse, made more than £30 million ($40 million) for the organization. The Norris era, now in its fifth year, has yet to produce a hit on that scale.

Yet excellence is also exclusive; a cozy cabal of established names that risks keeping out anyone who does not fit the (white, or male, or middle-class) template for stardom. Relevance is more democratic, at least superficially. It is also a riskier course, because it involves identifying new audiences and developing artists who speak to them—all of which might alienate the current audience. A theater as big as the National can survive only when it fills most of its seats, night after night. Its three auditoriums were 91 percent full over the past three years, but Norris said he was unsure whether it would maintain that level. Increasing the diversity of the audience and the actors has been the main policy of his tenure, but it has been accompanied by rising prices, making the audience more rarefied. In the past 12 months, the cost of the top ticket in the largest auditorium has risen from £68 to £89—low by the standards of profit-driven theaters on Broadway, but still multiple times the cost of a movie ticket or night out in London.

The questions facing the National Theatre reflect the broader themes of British politics right now: elitism, identity, diversity. In the half century since it was founded, the National has always commissioned plays that represent the “state of the nation,” tackling everything from the privatization of the railways to the Iraq War. “The National Theatre repertoire is a time capsule for the socioeconomic condition of Britain at any moment,” its authorized biographer, Daniel Rosenthal, told me.

So let’s flip the question around. What can we learn about Britain from the state of the National?

In his book Dramatic Exchanges, Rosenthal writes that the National Theatre has had four ages: “as a dream, as a campaign, a company and a building.” In 1904, the playwright Harley Granville-Barker and translator William Archer laid out their “Scheme & Estimates for a National Theatre,” to include a permanent company of actors—42 men, 24 women—that would “break away, completely and unequivocally, from the ideals of the profit-making stage.”

That was the campaign. In 1963, the actor Laurence Olivier founded a National Theatre company, based at the Old Vic, near Waterloo Station. It took another 13 years to acquire a building, its current home, which now has three spaces—the 1,150-seat Olivier, the 890-seat Lyttelton, and the 450-seat Dorfman—able to stage 25 new shows a year.

Since Laurence Olivier, the theater has had only five other artistic directors, all white, all male. With the exception of Olivier and Norris, all attended a single elite British university, Cambridge. The job is firmly part of the establishment, like being archbishop of Canterbury, the manager of the England men’s soccer team, or the director-general of the BBC. All jobs, incidentally, which have also been exclusively held by men—and almost exclusively by white ones too. (The seventh-century archbishop Theodore of Tarsus, from Turkey, boosts the Church of England’s diversity statistics.)

Every decision is made in an unforgiving spotlight, and because the National receives state funding, it is a regular target of scrutiny, particularly from the right. (Hytner told me it was a relief to work in the commercial sector after his time as artistic director, because he could focus on the work and forget about the politics.) The argument goes like this: Why should hard-working taxpayers fund London liberals to get dressed up in tights and play Titania? But theater is the most urgent, the most topical, of all performance media. It is faster and more reactive than film or television—allowing a city, or a country, to reflect on itself. Think of David Hare’s 1993 trilogy about the decline of British institutions; Hytner’s Iraq War–inflected Henry V in 2003; or Richard Bean’s 2014 play, Great Britain, about tabloid phone hacking. When plays like this succeed artistically, they become political landmarks. “Journalism is fantastic, but won’t punch you in the gut as directly,” Rosenthal said.

The current political moment presents a particular challenge. Excellence demands the definitive Brexit play—its version of The Crucible—while relevance suggests that the country may be too divided for the subject to be addressed by artists based in London. When I met Norris in his spartan office, overlooking the entrance to the theater’s underground parking garage, he admitted he (like many in the arts) was shocked by the fact that Leave won the 2016 European Union referendum. In person, the 54-year-old is wiry and saturnine, with a tattoo peeking out from his shirt sleeve. “The next day, we thought, Well, okay, what does this tell us? And it tells us that one way or another, we have not been listening.” He and the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, pulled together a response within nine months, called My Country: A Work In Progress. Seven “gatherers” from around the country each interviewed a dozen people, asking for their thoughts on British values, Europe, and their local community. The interviews were condensed and edited into a performance piece, designed to be the antidote to top-down, metropolitan sniffiness.

Seven actors perform a dress rehearsal of "My Country: A Work in Progress" at the National Theatre.
The cast of My Country: A Work in Progress during a dress rehearsal at the National Theatre. (PETER NICHOLLS / REUTERS)

My Country received mixed reviews: Some critics loved the gesture, while others found it patronizing. Dan Rebellato, a contemporary-theater professor at Royal Holloway in London, told me he found it “maladroit” and “actually incredibly metropolitan.” I put this to Norris. How can a theater run by Remainers understand the state of the nation? What is there in your program for those who voted Leave? He pointed to Mr. Gum, a children’s show then playing at the Dorfman, as a work that could be enjoyed by someone from any part of the political spectrum. But the existence of “neutral” work is separate from the argument that many National productions rest on an unconscious set of liberal assumptions.

Do you think there is anybody in this building who voted for Brexit, I asked. “For sure, yeah,” he replied. “Yeah, I know there is.”

No names were forthcoming.

When the Arts Council shifted its funding priority from “excellence” to “relevance,” Deputy Chief Executive Simon Mellor hammered the change home in a speech. “It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work,” he said in April. “You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value.”

To translate it into overtly political terms, “excellence” is Remain. It is the traditional system, functional, workable, financially successful. But it is also prone to elitism, snobbiness, and top-down directives. It can feel distant from people’s actual lives: Who lives like a character in a Henrik Ibsen play now, with servants—and without social media? “Relevance” is Leave: more populist and more disruptive. It is a democratized vision of art for audiences who—in Conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove’s famous phrase—“have had enough of experts.” (Some artists who support the “relevance” agenda might find a comparison with Brexiteers offensive. Their horror is itself revealing.)

This is a different approach to the one pursued by, say, Hytner during his tenure. According to his memoir, his vision for how to democratize theater was to offer “excellence” (the canon of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Molière, and the rest, plus the best new writing) subsidized by unashamedly commercial fare, and make it all accessible to the widest possible audience with tickets that started at £10. But the sponsor for those bargain tickets, Travelex, ended its partnership with the National last year and has not yet been replaced. That was a big loss. It ended an initiative that, in the words of the director Sam Mendes, “almost single-handedly brought a new generation of audiences into British theater.” (Norris told me that, for now, cheap tickets would be funded by dynamic pricing elsewhere, targeting the well-heeled audience for whom money was no object.)

The Arts Council’s pivot to “relevance” caused a minor stink, which played out through subtweets and private conversations: Those in British theater are understandably reluctant to go to war with the organization that supports them financially. Mellor eventually clarified his remarks in a letter to The Stage, the industry newspaper. “At the Arts Council, we see no opposition between relevance and excellence,” he wrote. “They can and should complement each other.” Others disagree. After all, why change the guidance if it makes no difference?

The Guardian’s retiring chief theater critic, Michael Billington, used his farewell column to make this point. “I get nervous when I hear an Arts Council desk-wallah say that, when it comes to funding, ‘relevance takes precedence over excellence,’” he wrote. “No amount of outreach, community or educational activity will be of any use if the work itself is not first-rate.”

David Hare thinks the same way. The 72-year-old is the closest thing the National has to a house dramatist, having worked there regularly since 1971. Visiting him in his studio in Hampstead, North London, I found him loading a metaphorical machine gun, ready to pepper the NT—an institution he clearly loves and values—with criticisms. When he first worked at the National, Hare said, its purpose was obvious: to stage plays that were artistically valuable but not commercially viable. “It was a place for specialism, skill, knowledge, and, of course, what would now be called elitism,” he told me. In recent years, he believes that focus has been lost.

That word—elitism—is a vital part of the debate. Is the pursuit of excellence inevitably elitist? The theater-maker Stella Duffy, who advocates for “cultural democracy” through her community project, Fun Palaces, thinks so. Her hero, the 20th-century director Joan Littlewood, wanted to “bomb” the National Theatre, and Duffy understands the temptation. “I’ve been to that building 20, 30 times, and I still get lost in it,” she told me. “It’s a big, concrete thing. It has a desire to do the canon, and the canon is by white men.” (The latter point is undoubtedly true: Just six works by female playwrights are in Billington’s The 101 Greatest Plays From Antiquity to the Present.)

Hare’s and Duffy’s opposing views encapsulate the debate over the National, and their different ideas about its future illustrate the gulf between the two sides. (Seemingly the only thing the pair agree on is that the National is too big, and should be downsized.) Hare is an uncompromising advocate of the National’s traditional priorities. He wants to see the canon preserved so that young writers can engage with (and rebel against) the medium’s history. He believes a play by, say, the Restoration dramatist William Congreve can tell us just as much about consumerism as a modern work. And while he thinks that diversity is a “completely admirable principle,” he worries that the National is becoming a “sociological project, rather than an artistic project.” That imperils its existence because, to put it crudely, audiences want a good evening out more than they want a lecture.

Hare also suggested to me that the National was simply too big, but Norris rejected this. “I’m very, very fond of David,” he told me, in a tone of barely repressed exasperation. “He doesn’t understand the degree to which the Understudy [the National’s bar] contributes to us being able to pay for the set for Peter Gynt. I don’t have time to explain that to him. The Understudy takes a certain amount of staff; he can write about human rights, but when it comes down … to the welfare of staff, that is human rights.” It was an unusually pointed criticism of the theater’s best-known contributor. A few days later, a spokeswoman for the National emailed to offer Norris’s more “considered” thoughts: Because of the subsidy cuts, fundraising had become more important. “Many of the additional staff that David sees no purpose for are engaged with addressing this reality,” Norris wrote.

A view of the London skyline, with the National Theatre, Waterloo Bridge and the London Eye.
The National Theatre, illuminated in red light, sits at the end of Waterloo Bridge, a short walk from the London Eye. (LEFTERIS PITARAKIS / AP)

Duffy argues that the answer is more radical. She would sell off the building—“someone could make some lovely flats from it”—and send a company of actors on tour instead. Professionals would be replaced with volunteers, and community participation would be the order of the day, bringing in “over-65 people, the white working class, and people of color.” I asked her what was wrong with directors and writers getting paid for their work. “Anybody who gets to train in the arts is privileged,” she countered.

“Each artistic director has battles to fight,” Rosenthal, the historian, told me. While running a theater right now, he said, the two biggest fronts echo the motto of Bill Clinton’s campaign team: “It’s the diversity, stupid. It’s the funding, stupid.” Norris faces pressure to make his building more democratic—more relevant—while maintaining the excellence needed to bring in revenue. He is not alone in facing these challenges. The Royal Court, the traditional home of new writing, has cut its core in-house programming by a quarter, according to the latest annual report. (Its artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, often suggested as the National’s next boss, told me the theater had been “over-programming” before.)

Caroline Newall, the acting artistic director at the National Theatre Scotland, says that the two issues, economics and diversity, were connected: Shrinking funding was making questions of representation more acute. Working-class and minority creatives were being forced out of the industry by stagnant fees that did not reflect the cost of living, particularly in big cities. Actors were finding it harder to pay the bills because there were fewer tours and shorter runs for productions. Theater now risks becoming a pursuit by the rich, for the rich.

Again, this reflects the state of the nation. From 2010 to 2018, day-to-day government spending fell by £32 billion ($41.35 billion), or 15 percent, once inflation and population growth are taken into account. Austerity Britain has less money for elderly care, for the unemployed, for the disabled—and for the arts. In the past decade, the National Theatre’s shrinking subsidies have been part of a larger story about the retreat of the state, just as the disruptions of its work in the ’70s, caused by powerful trade unions, were part of a bigger narrative. Back then, such industrial action demonstrated why Margaret Thatcher’s promises to curb organized labor proved so popular. Even the National’s artistic director at the time, Peter Hall, was so exhausted by his battles with the unions that he voted for Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979—considered a shocking, even heretical, thing for an artist to do.

In the following decades, free-market economics won the day. Thatcherism declared that capitalist competition was the best engine of progress, compared with the sluggishness and inefficiency of the state. This attitude persists today. In the right-wing Spectator magazine, the theater critic Lloyd Evans recently argued that the National Theatre was squashing innovation in the private sector. While West End producers would love to mount “dazzlingly original shows … only the National Theatre has the freedom to do so, thanks to the sugar-daddy taxpayer who underwrites all its flops.” This argument ignores the fact that commercial producers rely on artists and technical talent nurtured by the subsidized sector, and some even seem to use the National Theatre as a low-risk “test kitchen” for shows destined for a money-spinning afterlife.

Today, no artistic director of the National would ever expect a bailout to cover its debts, as the Labour government offered the Old Vic company in 1966. But the flipside is that the left has clinched the cultural argument. For its first five years as a company, the National Theatre was subject to government censorship. After that was abolished in 1968, right-wing tabloid newspapers used to generate reliable column inches about productions featuring too much sex, swearing, or violence. In 1982, the moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse tried, and failed, to sue the director of a National Theatre play which featured a male soldier raping another man. But by 2001, Hytner could stage a play called Mother Clap’s Molly House—set in a gay brothel in the 18th century—with no serious backlash. In When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, produced last year, the lead actors, Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, did nothing except play S&M games with each other in a suburban garage. The tabloids were entirely unfazed.

This lack of cultural pressure from the right has had an unexpected consequence. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind, warns of the consequences of industries becoming too politically homogeneous: If the police service is full of instinctive authoritarians and academia the exclusive home of liberals, both are likely to become more extreme. Theater, which is run by the left, now expends huge amounts of energy on fringe issues beloved by its base. In November, for example, the National announced that it would stop using the phrase ladies and gentlemen in prerecorded announcements, following guidance on gender-neutral terminology. Many theaters have changed their bathroom signage, abolishing single-sex toilets; in October, The Stage retracted two articles on the subject because the online debate had become so poisonous. And in the absence of censorship from outside, subsidized theaters are now most likely to face pressure about their programming from their own tribe. The NT’s season announcement in early 2019 generated a loud backlash on Twitter because its six shows did not feature any female writers.

It is noteworthy that within half a century, the dominant pressure on the National’s commissioning has switched from right-wing censorship on morality grounds to left-wing backlash on diversity grounds. Norris lives with a level of scrutiny unknown by his predecessors, turbocharged by the speed and anger of social media. Rosenthal pointed me to the negative online reaction when it was announced that a white writer was adapting Small Island, a book by a black novelist about black characters. In theater, as in other artforms, the left rules the culture war, while the right has economic dominance. While the left tries to cancel you, the right simply cuts your funding.

A few months after My Country, the National tried again to be directly relevant to the political conversation with Rory Mullarkey’s new play, Saint George and the Dragon. It is one of those seemingly cursed productions that is spoken about in pitying whispers. The reviews were hideous, criticizing its heavy-handed nostalgia for a pastoral England. Norris admitted that he intervened during the production process, asking for it to become more topical. The trouble, he told me, was that the Brexit debate moved so fast that any play tackling it directly risked becoming instantly outdated. Even during the four months between rehearsals starting and the end of the run, the conversation had moved on.

On the Olivier stage, the National’s biggest and most prestigious space, Saint George was preceded by Common, DC Moore’s willfully incomprehensible play about land enclosure, and followed by Norris’s own production of Macbeth, which received bloodcurdlingly bad reviews. The run of duds posed a severe challenge to Norris’s leadership. Maybe the nation was too fragmented, too angrily divided, for artists to assess its state? Or maybe fighting all those political battles left the National with little time for its artistic work? One playwright who recently had a commission there told me that the National had “taken its eye off the ball dramaturgically.” (He requested anonymity because he would like to work there again; as I said, it’s hard to criticize such a big source of income.)

I mentioned the run of Olivier flops to Norris. He pushed back, pointing to subsequent critical hits such as Amadeus, Follies, Translations, and Small Island. He was “defensive” about Macbeth because it sold well in both the National Theatre and on tour. Then Norris said something that goes to the heart of the challenge of running the National Theatre, with all the size and scale that implies. Macbeth, the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, works better in smaller venues, where the audience can feel an intimate acquaintance with the protagonist’s tragic mistakes. “There’s never been a production of Macbeth in living memory that’s started in a big theater that’s been well received.” So why do it in the Olivier? “Because it’s on every [school] curriculum in the country.” Some 35,000 young people studying it watched the production on tour, he said. “You can’t say to them, ‘Well, we’re doing Macbeth, but unfortunately nobody can come and see it, because we’re going to do it in a 200-seat studio, [even though] I might, as a director, love it, because I get great reviews for it.”

There it is, excellence versus relevance, again: The best version of the play is different from the one that can reach the most people. The artistic project and the social project are in conflict.

In August, the longtime arts journalist Richard Brooks wrote an Observer column headlined: “Is Rufus Norris’s Run at the National Drawing to a Close?” He noted that Norris’s five-year contract would end this year, and his deputy was departing. Brooks might also have mentioned that the National’s list of associate artists, those contracted to work regularly in the building, does not include many of the obvious names you’d expect to see—even though Norris ought to have his pick of British talent. The article concluded by wondering “how much longer [Norris] wants to carry on with this very tough gig.”

Yet Norris is undeterred. Of a second five-year term, he told me: “I think I probably will,” before volunteering the names of the artists he was most proud of discovering or promoting: Emily Lim, who links the National with community-theater programs; Natasha Gordon, who became the first black British woman to have a play in the West End; and Alexander Zeldin, a chronicler of the government’s austerity policies.

At the end of our interview, I asked Norris what he would do if a benevolent government suddenly doubled the subsidy overnight. It took him a moment to answer, because the premise is so unlikely. “National reach,” he answered eventually. The National Theatre was like the trunk of a vast tree, he argued, so he would spend the extra money outside London, in towns like Doncaster, in the north of England, one of the strongest Brexit-voting areas of Britain. The decline in arts subsidies—and the sense of alienation from metropolitan values—is felt most acutely in places like that. “Doncaster knows what Doncaster wants: Let Doncaster answer their own need, but empower them to do it,” he said.

The National Theatre’s battles are public and sometimes bitter, because everyone involved believes so passionately in the idea behind it. “It has such a symbolic purpose, that so many people care so deeply about it,” the critic Rosemary Waugh told me. “The worst thing would be for it to be irrelevant, and for no one to care.”

Britain’s flagship theater reflects the state of the nation extremely—perhaps painfully—well. Fractious, familial, and energetic. Caught in the grip of sweeping external forces and internal divisions. Struggling to adapt to identity-based politics, with its necessary correctives and occasional excesses. Responding to the demands of women and minorities to get a fair hearing. Retrenching after the boom years of the early 2000s. Sorting out who really counts as a member of the “elite.” Short of cash. Defying any leader to hold its disparate tribes together.

And, just like Britain, facing an existential question about what path it wants to take.

* David M. Benett / Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto / Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Walter McBride / FilmMagic / Getty