At least a third of the National Theatre’s new work will in future come from artists, venues and producers outside London, part of a campaign to help British theatre get back on its feet after the devastation of the pandemic.
On Friday the theatre announced reopening plans which will include a new musical based on Sleeping Beauty; and a new play for the Olivier stage telling the story of Nathuram Godse, the devout follower of Gandhi who became his assassin in 1948.
It also publicly launched National Theatre Together, described by the NT’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, as “a campaign that seeks to ensure we emerge from this time into a bright and creative future”.
Norris said the theatre’s new work department was returning to full strength “and we are even more committed to opening our doors to artists and theatre makers from across the whole breadth of the UK to support the sector, to flourish after the devastation of the past year”.
That will include a commitment that at least a third of the department’s capacity and resources will go towards developing work produced outside London.
All three South Bank theatre spaces are beginning to reopen for live audiences for the first time since March 2020.
The biggest space, the Olivier, reopens for socially distanced audiences in a fortnight with Under Milk Wood, starring Michael Sheen. Shows later in the year include Paradise by Kae Tempest, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and the Sleeping Beauty musical titled Hex for which Norris has written lyrics and will direct. The book is by Tanya Ronder, Norris’s wife, with music by Jim Fortune.
The Gandhi play, titled The Father and the Assassin, is written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, a former NT writer-in-residence.
Like all arts organisations, the National Theatre will have to operate with a slimmed-down business model. That will mean “slightly fewer productions” and none in rep, it said.
The theatre has lost a third of its workforce, drained its reserves and had to take on a £19.7m survival loan from the government, to be repaid with interest over the next 20 years.
Lisa Burger, joint chief executive, conceded that the loan meant it would be “cushioned” if theatres are not allowed to fully reopen on 21 June.
Andrew Lloyd Webber has threatened legal action if theatres can’t reopen. Norris said: “We don’t take quite such a hard line and we won’t be going to court over that, but I totally respect other people’s decisions to do as they see fit.”
Norris said the loan came with no conditions, that it would have no effect on artistic decisions and that risk-taking would continue. Asked if it would affect the theatre’s willingness to take risks, Norris asked: “What is safe programming?”
He added that “people’s taste has really expanded over the last few years”. The more they widened the programme to attract new audiences the more they discovered “we were broadening the experience of the people who had already been our audience”.