National Theatre moves away from 'straight adaptations' as Artistic Director says he wants theatre to be for everyone 

 Director of the National Theatre Rufus Norris
 Director of the National Theatre Rufus Norris Credit: Rii Schroer

For theatre purists the highlight of attending a show might be seeing a production as close to the original as possible but now the Chief Executive of the National Theatre has confirmed they are moving away from the exact adaptations in favour of plays with a modern twist. 

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Artistic Director Rufus Norris said classics were “more interesting for theatre aficionado than they were for the general public”. 

The conference, hosted in the National Theatre’s Gorvy Rehearsal Room saw Mr Norris and Chief Executive Lisa Burger announce 15 productions of new plays as well as modern twists of old ones. 

Noticeably, all of the revivals of classic plays were adaptations of the originals. When asked if this signaled a content shift Mr Norris responded: "As ever we try to make sure we represent the future as well as the heritage aspect and to an extent we are responding to what people want to see whether or not that's a broad shift I can't say. 

Explaining his remark regarding audience preferences, he added: "I think if you look back over the history of the National Theatre and the balance of works that we were doing maybe 15 years ago or 20 years ago there would have always been a place for lesser known European classics done in a fairly straight adaptation for example and those were very interesting…  

Rufus Norris outside the National  Credit:  PA

Continuing he said: “They were more interesting for theatre aficionado than they were for the general public. We want this theatre to be for everyone.” 

The Artistic Director who replaced Nicholas Hytner in 2015 argued that Paradise, Kate Tempest’s adaptation of Sophocles Greek drama Philoctetes is still largely rooted in its origins. 

He said: “I would argue that that is a very very valid Greek play that we're doing that has got a take on it that will hopefully bring a fresh audience as well as people who are passionate about the work of Sophocles." 

However, other adaptations have had what some may deem a complete rework in order to attract a new audience. One such play is Jack Absolute Flies Again, written by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris and based on Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. 

Whilst the original was set in 18th Century Bath the new production directed by Thea Sharrock will be relocated to the Second World War. Opening in April the plot will play out to the backdrop of Spitfires over the grounds of Malaprop Hall. 

Meanwhile Anton Chekhov’s iconic Three Sisters will not be set in a province in Russia, true to the playwrights own heritage, but will instead be based in 1960’s Nigeria. The new version by Inua Ellams offers a fresh take on a timeless tale as audience members are transported to the eve of the Biafran Civil War. Nadia Fall returns to the National to direct the retelling at the Lyttelton Theatre for a limited run this December, where hundreds of £15 tickets will be available for each performance. 

Even more recent plays are not immune to a makeover with the 20th Century work The Visit, also known as The Old Lady Comes To Call relocating from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Germany to Tony Award-winning writer Tony Kushner’s post-war America. Starring Lesley Manville, the dark comedy will be directed by Jeremy Herrin. 

The new programme will also see a production of the infamously popular My Brilliant Friend after its sold-out run at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Ferrante’s four novels are created into one play presented in two parts this November. 

Mr Norris said he was “very pleased to be welcoming back Melly Still, it was terrific to see her direct on the Olivier stage and she will be remaking her production of My Brilliant Friend adapted by April De Angelis from the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels, first seen at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.” 

He added that all the original company will come to the OIivier for the National Theatre’s version including Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack. 

The conference also saw the launch of the National Theatre Collection, with two new partnerships with Bloomsbury Publishing and ProQuest which will make British theatre available to libraries, schools and universities around the world via an online broadcast archive.