The National Theatre celebrating 50 years of excellence

Look around at what’s on offer in the West End right now and theatre-goers will find themselves spoilt for choice. Perusing the list of productions currently running in the heart of London, it reads like a well-prepared menu of specials designed to appeal to every conceivable taste bud, and among them, are three which the National Theatre can personally take the credit for. The classic theatre institution currently has three of its productions playing in West End venues, all of which have seen their initial success at the NT continue long after transferring into the West End: War Horse, One Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. War Horse, the stage adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, made the move to the West End’s New London Theatre in March 2009 following two sell-out runs at the NT. Not only is it still going strong six years later, but various productions have also been staged on Broadway and in Germany and Australia, as well as a film version directed by Steven Spielberg being released in December 2011. Richard Bean’s adapted play One Man, Two Guvnors transferred to the Adelphi Theatre in November 2011 after its NT run and subsequent UK tour. Original star of the play, comedian and actor James Corden, reprised his role in the 2012 Broadway transfer, while Rufus Hound continues to entertain audiences in the West End production, now playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the NT’s most recent transfer, opening at the Apollo Theatre in March 2013. The stage adaption of Mark Haddon’s award-winning 2003 novel has collected its own stash of awards, cleaning up at this year’s Olivier Awards by taking home seven gongs, including the well-deserved Best Actor for its star Luke Treadaway, equalling the record previously set by Matilda The Musical at the 2012 Awards. A film version is currently being planned.

These three productions are just the tip of the iceberg for the National Theatre though, which is renowned for the number of high quality performances it has staged there throughout the years. The 50th anniversary of this invaluable asset is fast approaching, and in light of its outstanding contributions to the London Theatre scene over the last half a century, this milestone in October is certainly cause for celebration.

There are some particularly notable productions scheduled to play at the NT during its autumn season, which will coincide with the date of its 50th anniversary. The first is a new version of Luigi Pirandello’s Liola’ by Tanya Ronder, directed by former artistic director Richard Eyre and featuring an Irish cast and gypsy musicians. Casting was announced last week, with Anne Bird, Charlotte Bradley, Anthony Delaney, Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Jenny Fennessy, James Hayes, Rory Keenan, Carla Langley, Rosaleen Linehan, Niamh McGowan, Gertrude Montgomery, Roxanna Nic Liam, Aisling O’Sullivan, Jessica Regan, David Summer and Eileen Walsh comprising the company for this Italian drama centred on the free-spirited title character. It opens at the Lyttelton Theatre, NT on 7th August 2013 (previews from 31st July) for a limited run until 6th November 2013.

Also occupying space at the Lyttelton Theatre from September is the long-awaited musical The Light Princess, which was postponed from last year. The Light Princess features music and lyrics by American singer/songwriter Tori Amos, who collaborated with book writer Samuel Anderson on the lyrics. The new musical is also directed by Marianne Elliot, who can count the previously mentioned NT successes War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time among her many theatre credits. Adapted from a 19th century fairytale, The Light Princess is billed as a ‘dark fairytale about grief, rebellion and the power of love’; it’s recently released synopsis reading as: “Once in opposing kingdoms lived a princess and a prince who had lost their mothers. Althea, unable to cry, became light with grief and floated, and so was locked away. Digby became so heavy-hearted that he could never smile, and so was trained as a warrior.

Roslaie Craig stars in The Light Princess at the Lyttelton Theatre, NT from September 2013One day, he declares war. Althea is forced out of hiding and down to ground but, in defiance of her father, she escapes, only to encounter the solemn prince on contested land. Beside a lake the warring heirs begin a passionate and illicit affair. But for Althea to find real love, she must first confront the world’s darkness and face her own deepest fears.”

Stunning artwork for the musical was also revealed recently, featuring previously announced cast member Rosalie Craig (Althea) who has appeared at the NT before in the critically acclaimed London Road. Playing opposite her as Prince Digby is Nick Hendrix, along with further cast members Amy Booth-Steel, Stephanie Bron, Vivien Carter, James Charlton, Hal Fowler, Owain Gwynn, Nicola Hart, C J Johnson, Luke Johnson, David Langham, Richard Lowe, Tommy Luther, Jamie Muscato, Emma Norin, Malinda Parris, Kane Oliver Parry, Adam Pearce, Caspar Phillipson, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Clive Rowe, Nuno Silva, Phoebe Street, Ben Thompson and Lynne Wilmot. It opens at the Lyttelton Theatre, NT on 9th October 2013 (previews from 25th September).

Over at the Oliver Theatre, there are a few more productions for the NT’s autumn season for theatre-goers to get excited over. First up is Christopher Marlowe’s iconic play Edward II, which stars John Heffernan in the title role of. Joe Hill-Gibbins makes his directorial debut for the NT with this ‘contemporary take on Marlowe’s magnificent, erotic and violent play’. Starring alongside Heffernan are Kyle Sollen as the King’s lover Gaveston, and Vanessa Kirby as his betrayed wife Queen Isabella, with the rest of the cast including Ben Addis, Alex Beokett, Paul Bentall, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Bettrys Jones, Nathaniel Martello-White and Matthew Pidgeon. It opens at the Oliver Theatre, NT on 4th September 2013 (previews from 28th August) and runs until 26th October 2013, whereon it will then be followed by a Christmas production of Emil and the Detectives. Adapted from Erich Kastner’s children’s story by Carl Miller, Bijan Sheibani will direct the show which features Naomi Frederick and Sue Wallace, with the central characters played by a cast of 9-13 year olds and a 50-strong child ensemble brought in from local schools and youth theatres. Set in 1920’s Berlin, the family-fun show about a young boy who sets out to find the train thief who stole his money opens on 4th December 2013 (previews from 16th November 2013).

There are also a variety of not-to-be-missed productions set to be staged at the National Theatre’s temporary outdoors venue The Shed, which was created to be used while NT space the Cottesloe Theatre was closed – it reopens next year as the renamed Dorfman Theatre. Three separate productions play in succession from 9th July to 7th September 2013, kicking of with the NT Connections 2012 commissioned play The Grandfathers by Rory Mullarkey (9th-13th July). It is closely followed by The Hush, a unique aural adventure created especially for The Shed by Matthew Herbert and Ben Power (17th July-3rd August) and then Nadia Fall’s Home, a theatrical piece billed as ‘documentary theatre meets beatboxing and R&B’. In addition, a limited season of Limited Editions plays from 9th-21st September 2013, which features some of Britain’s most exciting new theatre-makers in a series of short runs. Featured artists include Dan Canham, Little Bulb, Myrtle Theatre Company, Sleep Dogs and Wardrobe Ensemble. From September onwards, there is also the UK premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s imaginative play The World of Happiness, set in contemporary China (25th September-26th October), the new play Nut by Debbie Tucker Green (30th October-5th December) and Connections, new plays performed by leading writers and performed by young people.

The National Theatre’s 50th anniversary will not only be marked by the top-notch productions running throughout the autumn season however. A series of platforms, screenings and interactive events are planned, with NT director Nicholas Hytner’s much-talked about ’50 Years on Stage’ being one of the most notable events. This unique celebration will be a ‘thrilling evening of live performance and rare glimpses from the archives’. The event, which will also be broadcast on BBC2 and to cinemas internationally, will feature an elite selection of the exceptional actors who have performed on the stages of the NT in the past along with extracts from former hit NT productions such as The History Boys, London Road, Angels in America and Guys and Dolls. A special preview performance is also due to take place on 1st November, with the opportunity to register for a ballot for reduced-price tickets also available.

As well as this, the BBC will screen a new Arena documentary which tells the story of the National, from its foundling performance at former venue the Old Vic in 1963 to its current residency on the South Bank. The documentary will delve behind the scenes of hit NT productions such as War Horse, Frankenstein and Othello and is set to include interviews with some renowned NT alumni, with the names of Alan Bennett, Dame Judi Dench, Adrian Lester, Sir Ian McKellen, Lucy Prebble, Jean Plowright, Peter Hall and Sir Derek Jacobi just some of the names being bandied about. NT Live will also be showing several encore screenings of recent acclaimed NT productions throughout October and November. Their staging of Shakespeare classic Hamlet will be screened on 22nd October 2013, followed by Nick Dear’s Frankenstein on 31st October 2013 and The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett on 7th November 2013. Further celebrations include platform discussions and exhibitions detailing the history of the NT, as well as a pop-up shop on the South Bank selling unique items which have been especially created for the 50th anniversary. They have also recruited metro-boulot-dodo to come up with The National Trail, a part-treasure hunt, part-history tour which takes its audience on an interactive adventure around the National Theatre and reveals the rich history of the company.

The National Theatre is an integral asset to, not only the West End, but the theatre industry in general. For fifty years, it has been producing theatrical productions of the highest quality and firmly established itself as an indispensable part of the London theatre scene. The NT was born at the Old Vic in 1963, when Peter O’Toole starred in Hamlet under the direction of Laurence Oliver; from that first performance, it has developed and grown to become the colossal giant of theatre that it is today. To have been going for half a century is a massive achievement, so theatre-goers far and wide are all invited to share in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the National Theatre – a national treasure and one well worth celebrating.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Thursday 20th June 2013

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