Opinion: The biggest appointment in British theatre was down to talent, not diversity

People have been rightly saying for years that it’s high time a woman or person of colour took on the job of running the National Theatre, which has had white blokes in charge of it for an unbroken six decades since it was founded by Laurence Olivier in 1963. But now that it’s finally happening, it feels somewhat uncomfortable to point to former Kiln boss Indhu Rubasingham and say ‘yay, a woman of colour’, as if that’s why she’s been appointed to the top job in British theatre.

The simple fact is that she’s long been considered the best and most obvious candidate for the job by almost everyone in the industry – theatre hacks included – and her appointment is totally unsurprising in the best possible way. 

Her CV is impeccable. She took over at Kiln – then named the Tricycle – back in 2012, after her predecessor Nicolas Kent left, citing funding cuts as part of his reason. She made a huge success of it, with a hugely eclectic programme that contained a fair few West End hits (she was a notable early champion of French hit machine Florian Zeller). She’s also shown she can do the big leadership stuff too, having led Kiln through a massive multi-year, multi-million pound upgrade project, and also weathered a few controversies on the way (notably a surprisingly vociferous grassroots campaign of people who objected to the theatre’s name changing).

What really seals the deal is that she’s done a whole load of stuff at the National Theatre too: wildly eclectic, across all three theatres, stretching from her 2015 debut with US playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s ‘The Motherfucker with the Hat’ to this year’s return for her phenomenal production of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s drama about Gandhi’s killer, ‘The Father and the Assassin’.

The simple fact is that she’s long been considered the best candidate for the job by almost everyone in the industry – theatre hacks included 

Qualification is the most important part. But representation does matter: the leadership of the NT has only ever represented a relatively narrow section of the country. What’s more, the insane workload and huge public pressure has historically put off candidates: Trevor Nunn famously agreed to do the job in 1997 because literally nobody of sufficient standing actually had wanted to do it; last time around Marianne Elliott – a hot favourite – ruled herself out, saying she felt the time commitments were ‘particularly difficult’ for a mother.

And, of course, for much of the National Theatre’s lifetime, there simply haven’t been many prominent female theatre directors and directors of colour around. While we could get into a whole thing over why that is, the fact is enormous change has come in the last decade or two, with the Royal Court, Shakespeare’s Globe, Bush Theatre, Young Vic, Donmar Warehouse and indeed Kiln all being led by women and/or directors of colour for the first time. In that respect the National looked like the last great hold out, and with outgoing AD Rufus Norris doing huge amounts to diversify the actual programming, a seventh artistic director from the same demographic would have felt like a curious retrograde step for a theatre that has changed a lot in other respects.

What an uncomplicated delight it is that Rubasingham has been appointed to be the NT’s seventh artistic director, due to take over in 2025 after a year working with Norris. She’s not only an inspired choice, she’s also a safe choice –  and we should be grateful that we’re living in a time when that’s finally the case.

Read more: The new artistic director of the National Theatre has been revealed.

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