National Theatre at 50: a celebration

Fresh from watching BBC2’s broadcast of the largest gathering of National Theatre luminaries ever to appear on one stage, I wanted to put my thoughts down before forgetting the great and the good.

To do justice to a half century of productions in a couple of hours (two and a half, as it happens) is a tall order, but I think current artistic director Nicholas Hytner got his choices spot on. Mixing archive footage (a radiant Maggie Smith in ‘Hay Fever’, Paul Scofield’s definitive ‘obscene child’ speech from ‘Amadeus’, the powerful Southern tension between Maggie (Lindsay Duncan) and Brick (Ian Charleson) in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, Ian McKellen’s reptilian ‘Richard III’) with live snippets from plays (Helen Mirren and Tim Pigott-Smith simmering with hate in ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’, a fragile Cleopatra (Judi Dench) playing tribute to her Antony, Ralph Fiennes an electrifying media mogul in ‘Pravda’, Andrew Scott and Dominic Cooper facing mortality in ‘Angels in America’, Simon Russell Beale soliloquizing (but not To Be or Not To Be) as ‘Hamlet’, the hilarious French lesson from ‘The History Boys’) and musicals (Clive Rowe’s Nicely Nicely rocking the boat in ‘Guys and Dolls’, the Rain in Spain from ‘My Fair Lady’, a bouncy snippet from ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’), this show has something for everyone.

I enjoyed seeing a moving excerpt from ‘War Horse’, a section from ‘The National Health’ (with original cast member Charles Kay), a lovely two-hander from National originals Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi in Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’, a mischievous sequence from ‘Bedroom Farce’ with Nicholas Le Provost and Penelope Wilton, a montage of NT Live productions including the Miller/Cumberbatch ‘Frankenstein’, and Zoe Wanamaker in ‘The Cherry Orchard’, a section from ‘Othello’ where Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear freeze framed for a sound archive snippet from the 1965 Othello and Iago (Laurence Olivier and Frank Finlay).

Perhaps most touching of all was Joan Plowright (Lady Olivier) returning to the Old Vic stage to perform ‘Joan of Arc’ fifty years after she first appeared in the role.

Going back to those archive clips, I wish the National Theatre would open up its archive more for viewing, not necessarily for commercial reasons and DVD release, but in a manner similar to the BFI’s Mediatheque. Judging by the selection shown at this celebration there is some fabulous material hidden away, especially of performers who are no longer with us, or who no longer perform on the stage (a good example here would be Anthony Hopkins, who was referred to several times but who clearly did not feel able to participate here, if he was even approached!).

Many original company members were present and correct at this celebration, by the way: Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Joan Plowright. The sense of something special having been created started from the silent appearance of Derek Jacobi as Old Hamlet’s Ghost, and carried on right to Frances de la Tour’s ‘persistent plays’ from ‘The Habit of Art’ which closed the evening.

The programme for the day can be downloaded at:

NaBloPoMo November 2013