50 Years Today: Happy Anniversary to The National Theatre

Today marks the date of a very special anniversary in the world of theatre, a date which stretches the course of half a century. Today, the National Theatre celebrates its 50th Jubilee.

Since its foundation in 1963, the National Theatre has grown to become an integral theatrical company and its current home on the Thames’ South Bank is now one of the most recognisable and renowned venues in London. It has staged over 800 productions and given theatre-goers some of the best musicals and plays which have, and will, become classics within the theatre industry. Countless actors of the highest quality have stood on its stages representing the high quality of the National Theatre, the two working together in a wonderful collaboration that has firmly secured the NT’s place as one of the most ‘cherished and creative of great British institutions,’ (www.nationaltheatre.co.uk).

A 50th anniversary is commonly celebrated as a golden one; an association which couldn’t be more apt in regards to the National Theatre. Gold is one of the Earth’s most precious substances and is a symbol of power and success; the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, one of England’s greatest monarchs, is widely considered as a period of achievement and often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ in English history. The past 50 years of the National Theatre would certainly be seen as a period of achievement and it has cemented itself as a symbol of power and success in the minds of theatre fans and industry professionals.

A 50th wedding anniversary is also celebrated with gold, harking back to a time when wives were presented with a wreath of gold upon 50 years of marriage. I recently saw a definition of a wedding anniversary which described it as, ‘a celebration of life spent together and great things accomplished with love and commitment, (Kim Hoyam, www.ehow.co.uk). The 50th Jubilee of the National Theatre could be compared to a 50th wedding anniversary by this definition, and when you really think about it, is the half-century celebration of the NT’s founding that different from the celebration of a marriage?

The relationship between the National Theatre and its audiences could be likened to a marriage. For 50 years, the two have enjoyed a beautiful partnership in which each has always been there to fulfil the others needs and offered unwavering support. From that opening performance of the NT’s first production (Hamlet, starring Peter O’Toole and directed by Laurence Olivier) at its original home at the Old Vic, the theatre and its audience were united in what has so far been a 50 year commitment to theatre excellence, pledging to each other to, ‘love you unconditionally, to support you in your goals, to honour and respect you, to laugh with you and cry with you, and to cherish you for as long as we both shall live.’ The National Theatre has spent the entirety of its 50 years aiming to make theatre fans happy through its numerous productions, and in return, its audiences have upheld the traditional vows made by a bride and groom at a wedding.

‘For better or for worse’? The National Theatre has staged hundreds of productions over the years and produced some iconic pieces of theatre in that time. The 1964 production of Othello starring the National Theatre’s artistic director Laurence Olivier should certainly be classed as one such piece. The success of the production transfigured into a film version the following year, in which Olivier reprised the title role alongside cast mate Maggie Smith as Desdemona. In a great example of the timeless brilliance of the National Theatre, its 2013 production of Othello with Adrian Lester was widely acclaimed, emanating the huge success of the company’s original effort. Other productions, including the premieres of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (1978 – Penelope Wilton, Michael Gambon, Daniel Massey) and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979 – Paul Scofield, Simon Callow, Felicity Kendall), the award-winning 1982 revival of musical Guys and Dolls, and William Shakespeare plays Antony and Cleopatra (1987 – Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench) and Richard III (1990 – Ian McKellan), have become noteworthy works in the NT’s historical repertoire, and in more recent years, it has created a number of further smash hit productions which have expanded beyond the walls of the National. Alan Bennett’s 2004 play, The History Boys, made its debut at the Lyttelton Theatre, NT with a cast which featured Richard Griffiths and made stars of such young cast members as Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Russell Tovey. The production won multiple awards, including several ‘Best Play’ awards, and further international productions have been staged all over the world. It also spawned a film version in 2006 which starred the original cast. Another example would be the award-winning 2007 production of War Horse, which has now been running in the West End (New London Theatre) and been performed in countries such as America, Australia and Germany, as well as being adapted by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall in 2011 for a film version, which was directed by Steven Spielberg. Other recent hits for the National Theatre include the 2011 productions of One Man, Two Guvnors which is still running in the West End at the theatre Royal Haymarket and in which original cast member James Corden reprised his star role for both the subsequent West End and Broadway productions, and the original musical London Road, which starred the likes of Rosalie Craig, Michael Schaeffer, Claire Moore, Duncan Wisbey and Nicola Sloane, among other. It was recently announced that a film adaption is currently in the works.

No theatre company has a spotless record when it comes to their work however. The National Theatre has had a pretty high success rate with the productions staged there, but there are the inevitable few which didn’t get the desired positive response. Last year’s production of Damned By Desire was proof that the National Theatre, while getting it right most of the time, are not perfect and are just as capable as anyone else of producing the odd flop now and then. Its version of Tirso de Molina’s 17th century Spanish play was condemned by the critics and suffered from walk-outs by audience members, an overwhelmingly negative presence on social networking sites and some of the lowest star ratings in critical reviews that have ever been seen. Even Bertie Carvel, fresh from his star-turn as the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull in hit West End show Matilda The Musical, wasn’t enough to save it. Through these occasional wrong-turns however, theatre fans have stuck by the NT and never let the wobbles in their otherwise steady relationship send them overboard.

How about ‘for richer, for poorer’? The National Theatre has grown from strength to strength since its early days at the Old Vic; the financial reports for the last year speak for themselves. In 2012/2013, the NT’s net income was a record-breaking £87 million, with 59% of that generated from the box office receipts from productions at its South Bank home, as well as tour, West End and international productions. It showed an average increase of £7 million from the previous financial year. As good as that looks for the NT though, it must not be forgotten that they are a publically funded company that relies on monetary support from outside sources. The NT receives funding from the Arts Council of England (ACE), and only 20% of their 2012/13 income came from ACE. Twenty years ago, the percentage was twice that. It is public support such as that from ACE and other companies and trusts which have helped the National Theatre to survive to reach its 50th anniversary, as have the ticket-buying public. New endeavours in recent years have also helped their financial standing, as with their National Theatre Live program in which popular NT productions are screened live in cinemas, first across the UK and then later in international showings. It began in June 2009, with the NT production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren broadcast live to 70 cinemas in the UK simultaneously. The success of that first showing has since led to dozens more productions being made accessible to cinema audiences, such as Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, This House, Macbeth and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the latter of which is another example of a break-out National Theatre hit which transferred to the West End and has earned multiple theatre awards. The National doesn’t benefit at the expense of the theatre-goers however. Programs like the NT Live opens theatre up to a wide variety of audiences, ensuring that everyone who wants to see it can. The partnership forged with Travelex also means that theatre-goers can book tickets for certain NT productions for just £12, which for those who can’t afford West End ticket prices, is a golden opportunity to be grabbed with both hands.

When it comes to ‘in sickness and in health’, most would be hard-pressed to find an instance in which the National was less-than well. It has grown in leaps and bounds since that first performance in 1963 and is about as healthy as one could hope a theatre company to be. It did have to spend 13 years in residence at the Old Vic before finally being able to move in to its permanent home on London’s South Bank, but I don’t think anyone can argue that its time there hurt the company in any way. The National is always looking to the future too, which is precisely what the NT Future project is about. A major overhaul of the venue is currently underway, in which the Cottesloe Theatre is to be redeveloped and renamed the Dorfman Theatre and improvements made to its many services and facilities, as well as the addition of a new production building and a learning centre for audiences to ‘learn, explore and discover more about theatre’. The estimated £70 million cost of the project may be a pretty hefty price tag, but the outcome of these changes is that the NT can move forward to a bigger, better and ever-more prosperous future.

The National Theatre is celebrating its 50th anniversary with its audience with a host of special performances and programmes which will look back on the last half-century and visit with some of the leading actors associated with the company. BBC2 will be airing an exclusive programme on 2nd November, titled National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage, which features live performance, archive footage and appearances/interviews with such celebrated past-NT actors as Benedict Cumberbatch, Maggie Smith, Christopher Eccleston, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Wilton, and many more. BBC2 will also be airing the documentary Arena: The National Theatre today (22nd October) which will tell the story of the National from Laurence Olivier’s Old Vic company to the South Bank. Footage of historic productions will be shown in the programme as well as behind-the-scene looks at its recent hit productions, with contributions from the likes of Adrian Lester, Judi Dench, Alan Bennett and Ian McKellan, to name a few. There have also been several exhibitions and the creation of The National Trail, a part-treasure hunt, part-history tour conceived by metro-boulotdodo which takes the audience on an interactive journey around the NT.

It seems impossible to imagine a London theatre scene which doesn’t include the National Theatre now. The last 50 years have indeed been a golden age of theatre, and the recent announcement of Rufus Norris as the new artistic director of the NT promises that it is taking a step in the right direction to ensure that the next 50 years will give just as much cause for celebration. Actor/director Norris, who will take over the reins from current boss Nicholas Hytner in 2015, described his appointment as a “great privilege” adding that he would “attack that with gusto,” (BBC News).

The union of marriage is sealed with the declaration of ‘to love and to cherish, from this day forward until death to us part,’ and the National Theatre and its audiences have done just that since they were first found each other at the Old Vic in 1963 through a production of Hamlet. It is a union which has spanned the course of half a century so far and shows no signs of coming to an end anytime soon, as the National Theatre only gets better with age. This is a day of celebration, so happy 50th anniversary to the National Theatre and happy 50th anniversary to each and every one of its audience members from 1963 to today.


By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 22nd October 2013


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