Rufus Norris is stepping down as artistic director of the National Theatre

In a year in which an unprecedented number of major theatre jobs have gone up for grabs – from the Royal Court to the Open Air Theatre – the biggest theatre job of them all (as in, probably in the world) is now up for grabs as Rufus Norris has said he will be stepping down from the National Theatre in 2025, with a successor hopefully chosen by the end of this year.

Typically modest and low-key, Norris talked through the next year of NT programming at the theatre’s annual press conference before he dropped his big announcement. Highlights include Tim Price’s new play ‘Nye’, which will star Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan, the fiery founder of the NHS, a new stage version of Dickens’s ‘Out Mutual Friend’ called ‘London Tide’ that will feature songs by PJ Harvey, a new production of Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’ starring David Oyelowo as the Roman general, and ‘Infinite Life’, a new play from the brilliant cult US writer Annie Baker.

National Theatre, The Shed
Photo: Philip Vile

It was widely expected that Norris would announce he was stepping down as ten years is a pretty standard amount of time for the job if done well – only the NT’s second artistic director Peter Hall did the role for significantly longer. Although he probably won’t be remembered as quite a significant figure as his predecessor Nicholas Hytner, that’s largely because unlike Hytner he didn’t have to turn around an ailing institution – although he did point to steering the NT through the ravages of the pandemic as probably his most significant achievement, followed by bringing new writing to the fore on the NT’s stages.

With the new programming announcements going down extremely well, there’s little sense of an institution desperately in need of rescuing. Nonetheless, it’s been widely noted that the NT is now one of the few major London theatres to have never been run by anybody other than a white man – were the board to appoint another white dude who’d in all likelihood be in place until 2035 there would perhaps be more than a rolling of the eyes.

Still, in the interest of rampant speculation, here are five people who might replace Rufus Norris.

Josie Rourke

Former boss of the Bush Theatre and Donmar Warehouse, Rourke was (somewhat shockingly) one of London’s first-ever female artistic directors. She’s got the chops to run a building, is great at luring celebrities into her productions, and recently displayed her versatility as a director by boshing out three wildly different hit plays – ‘As You Like It’ @sohoplace, ‘Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons’ in the West End, and ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ at the NT itself – in a little over four months. There’s a question as whether she’s actually interested, though, having recently moved out of London.

Indhu Rubasingham

Probably the most likely of the glut of artistic directors who’ve announced their imminent departures to find a new home at the NT, outgoing Kiln boss Rubasingham has directed a handful of plays of varying scale at the NT and is a versatile boss who has steered Kiln through some sticky moments. 

Clint Dyer

It clearly wouldn’t be totally crazy if the NT’s deputy artistic director was appointed to the job. He still feels a bit new to the role and hasn’t run a building per se, but he’s surely learning on the job, and has demonstrated his range in recent years with his ‘Death of England’ plays and a storming ‘Othello’ at the NT, and Bob Marley musical ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ in the West End.

Sam Mendes

No speculative list about the National Theatre’s future would be complete without the presence of Sam Mendes, who was hotly tipped for the role in 1997 and 2003, but didn’t actually apply. He’s probably not going to apply this time. But he’s directed a fair number of shows at the NT during Norris’s tenure, and he doesn’t obviously have any megabucks films on the horizon. If he did apply you have to think he’d be a difficult man to turn down.

Two artistic directors

It’s not that common for a theatre to be run by two people. But it does happen: the RSC has done it a couple of times, for example. It might happen at the NT for a few reasons: to diversify a ticket – ie we can’t have just a white guy running it, but a white guy plus somebody else could work – to enable a high profile but busy AD – say Mendes – to be able to take time out from the role, or to allow somebody from a non-artistic director background (an actor, for instance) to have more experienced support in the role. 

The new artistic director of the National Theatre is due to be appointed by the end of this year. Rufus Norris will stay in place until the spring of 2025.

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