Theatremaker becomes first woman and first person of colour to lead nation’s theatre – and actors who have worked with her tell us she is a bold and thrilling talent…
By Suman Bhuchar
THE NEWS that Indhu Rubasingham has been appointed as the new director of the National Theatre has been greeted with widespread approval. Actors, critics and other creatives have been pouring their congratulations across social media and other public channels.
If she had been running for prime minister she would win with a landslide.
“I fully expect her to be a one-nation theatre leader – she has little mark of the metropolitan bubble.
“In all my dealings with her I’ve found her friendly and approachable – no minor gift when it comes to handling as demanding an institutional brief as this,” said The Daily Telegraph Theatre critic Dominic Cavendish.
While Arifa Akbar, chief theatre critic at the Guardian, noted: “She is by all accounts well-respected and well-loved.
“The venue is safe in her hands. But more than that, it is opened up to the prospect of the bold, and the magnificently unexpected – because who wants a merely safe pair of hands?
“Rubasingham is too talented and experienced to sacrifice quality for any of the risk she takes – and I do hope she takes a few. She knows how to combine brilliant new writing with crowd-pleasers, and how to stage canonical works with verve.”
Rubasingham will be working alongside Executive Director Kate Varah and both will become Joint Chief Executives in a co-leadership model.
Rubasingham is the first woman and person of colour to be appointed to one of the most totemic of arts positions in the land – now marking its 60th year history and will be taking up the role in Spring 2025 after the current director, Rufus Norris steps down, although she will be joining as Director Designate in Spring 2024.
Already there is already speculation on what her in-tray will look like and offers of well-meaning advice on how to run the National Theatre building on its current successes as well as reflecting the diversity of the nation.
Rubasingham is no stranger to the National Theatre – her last production was ‘The Father and the Assassin’ which returned in September 2023 after an original run in May/June 2022.
Ayesha Dharker – who played the role of Aai in ‘The Father and The Assassin’ – and has worked with Rubasingham for over 20 years, offered her congratulations and told www.asianculturevulture.com that it was “unbelievable, wonderful and fabulous news”.
Dharker told acv she auditioned for Rubasingham for her first ever job (in the theatre) which was to play, Sita in ‘The Ramayana’ (adapted by Peter Oswald) in 2000, which premiered at the Birmingham Rep and which was later on the Olivier stage at the National in London. The show reflected multicultural Britain, through its performers and had a physicality and also incorporated traditions such as Kathakali, a popular form of ancient South Indian dance and storytelling.
“She saw me in ‘The Terrorist’ (1998) and auditioned me.”
The relationship evolved and Dharker has worked with her regularly on productions written by Anupama Chandrasekhar on ‘Disconnect’ (2010), ‘When the Crows Meet’ (2019) and ‘The Father and the Assassin’.
“She maintains long deep relationships with writers and actors,” added Dharker.
She encourages creatively and forms long relationships and is a loyal person. She is a good leader and rigorously disciplined.
Chandrasekhar, who wrote ‘The Father and the Assassin’ posted on her Instagram account, “SO MUCH PRIDE … when one’s dearest friend and collaborator gets UK’s top job. Bravo Indhu!”
Their partnership began with Chandrasekhar’s first play, ‘Free Outgoing’ (2007) – about an Indian school girl who’s filmed having sex with a boy in her classroom and the video goes viral. It was supposedly based on a real incident.
Rubasingham brings a fresh energy to the National and has a lot to offer.
“She is a transformational leader and well qualified to take the role,” says actor Irvine Iqbal, who also appeared in ‘The Father and the Assassin’ (2022) as the essayed the role of Jinnah, the father of the Pakistani nation – and also worked with her on ‘Bombay Dreams’ (2002) where she was the associate director. “I’ve been lucky enough to see her grow,” he shared with acv.
Those who have been part of the journey can see that Rubasingham has grafted all her life and has worked on shows on small, medium and large scale stages.
Rubasingham, 53, was born in Sheffield of Sri Lankan -Tamil heritage. She studied drama at Hull University and then later received an Arts Council bursary and did some of her early work at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. She later worked at the Tricycle Theatre under the mentorship of its then artistic director, Nicholas Kent on projects including the flagship, ‘The Great Game’ (2009) and ‘Women & Power’ (2010).
She was appointed Artistic Director of the Tricycle which she later renamed The Kiln in 2012 and has just formally stepped down.
She ran it for 12 years and transformed the organisation getting it capital funding for a major refurbishment – to her many successful plays ranging from ‘Red Velvet’ (2012) at the beginning of her tenure to ‘The Wife of Willesden’ (2021) at the end – with the former by Lolita Chakrabarti transferring very successfully to Broadway and the latter by Zadie Smith also getting a run in the US in 2023.
Rubasingham has worked regularly at the National on all the three stages – Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe (now Dorfman).
Her productions include ‘The Waiting Room’ (2000) ‘The Motherf*cker With the Hat’ (2015), ‘Ugly Lies the Bone’ (2017), ‘The Great Wave‘ (2018) and ‘Kerry Jackson’ (2023).
About her appointment she said: “It’s a huge honour to be appointed Director of the National Theatre – for me, this is the best job in the world.
“The National has played an important part in my life – from tentative steps as a teenage theatregoer, to later as a theatre-maker, and to have the opportunity to play a role in its history is an incredible privilege and responsibility.
“Theatre has a transformative power – the ability to bring people together through shared experience and storytelling, and nowhere more so than the National.”
Her appointment was announced by the National Theatre on December 13.
Lead picture: Indhu Rubasingham by ©AntonioOlmos for the National Theatre