Podcast of the Week: the National Theatre podcast

Find out more about some of the London theatre's biggest productions – and the biggest issues facing the UK's arts scene

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New podcasts are coming along daily, small-scale and large, and on the latter side there’s a clear trend for cultural institutions to start waking up to the value of podcasting. It’s seen as a means of self-expression — a way of giving voice to the institution’s ideas and beliefs, and of shedding light on its inner workings.

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I’ve chosen one for this week’s column — the podcast that’s just been launched by the National Theatre. So now, in addition to the plays that the National Theatre puts on, and to the NT Live programme whereby NT productions are beamed to audiences via cinema screens all round the country, the National Theatre offers up another experience altogether.

The podcast’s aim is as ambitious as you would expect from such a powerful presence on the arts landscape.

Our stages are filled with work that reflects today’s society, and the NT podcast series is an opportunity to deepen audiences’ relationship with that work and start a discussion that explores how the arts intersect with the issues that affect all of us, across the UK and around the world,” says Emma Keith, the National’s head of broadcast. 

But does it actually make for an exciting podcast?

Brexit was the theme of the first of the 10 that the National Theatre has lined up, an already widely explored subject, and the caveat that the podcast came with didn’t help – most of it, we were told, was recorded before the announcement of the general election. 

Since that was over a month ago, you had to wonder what exactly had been going on during the long gestation period. Podcasts about the here and now need to be light on their feet, but this one, while slickly and pleasingly put together, felt like it might have had to be run past one too many committees.

The discussion was built around the National’s recent production of a new play My Country; a work in progress, which was in part based on interviews that the National did with members of the public in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum.

It was thorough, and revealing, and presenter Sam Sedgman – one of the National’s producers – had a podcast sense of humour and informality about him. But at 40 minutes the podcast felt slightly too long, and the testimony of Ed Miliband ended up making the whole thing sound a bit too Radio 4. The best input came from a less familiar voice, that of the National’s artistic director Rufus Norris. I learned a lot about him from this response he gave to the Brexit vote:

“One of the sad truths of our age is that we all think we occupy the moral high ground, that we know what the answer is, and I’m right, and actually, we don’t. It’s very easy to think that I have to be right because that justifies myself and makes it easier to be me, but in this situation, whatever you say, we haven’t got 17 million idiots out there who voted one way – and there’s a reason why they did it.”

So – a slightly slow start to proceedings but I’ve higher hopes for future editions in which the subjects to be covered include theatre in prisons, Harriet Walter reflecting on playing men on stage and reinventing traditional male roles as women, the challenge of playing King Lear, the history of LGBTQ+ stories on stage, theatre for young people, and the relationship between actor and audience.

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The episodes, the NT says, will be released regularly and are available at nationaltheatre.org.uk/podcast.