Magazine article The Spectator

One Drama after Another

Magazine article The Spectator

One Drama after Another

Article excerpt

The National Theatre Story by Daniel Rosenthal

Oberon Books, �35, pp. 846,

ISBN 9781840027686

Spectator Bookshop, �30

In 1976, as the National Theatre moved into its new home on London's South Bank, its literary manager Kenneth Tynan observed:

'It's taken 123 years to get here: 60 of Victorian idealism, half a century of dithering, and a final 13 years in the planning and building.'

Today, still under Nick Hytner's dynamic and broad-church directorship, the National is in rude health both artistically and economically. But as Daniel Rosenthal makes clear in this magnificently detailed history, published to mark the theatre's first halfcentury, the journey has been a supremely hazardous and contentious one.

Right from its Victorian beginnings, the idea of a state-subsided theatre was met with indifference, cynicism and hostility, not least from West End theatre managers and actors: Charles Wyndham called it 'alien to the spirit of our nation', while Seymour Hicks wondered 'if there are really half a dozen people insane enough to think it will ever come into existence'. Even as late as 1961 John Osborne, fearing 'some kind of awful museum', declared: 'If it is ever built I only hope someone sets fire to it.'

Yet the first detailed blueprint for the creation, organisation and management of such a theatre, provided in 1904 by Harley Granville Barker and William Archer, gradually gained support - though only after decades of committee wrangling, continual changes of site and government reluctance to fund it. And when Denys Lasdun's brutalist concrete building finally rose up by the Thames, it attracted massive public opprobrium; in one poll it was voted the worst building in Britain.

Rosenthal has had full and unfettered access to the National's extensive archive of letters, memos and board papers, and has interviewed 100 actors, directors, playwrights and administrators over a period of ten years. The result is a full and fascinating account of the contrasting regimes of the theatre's first five directors: Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner.

Each had to confront similar challenges in the perennial battle between art and money: how to stage new, often experimental plays while balancing the books; whether to create an ensemble company or make use of the star system; how to attract new audiences beyond the traditional middleclass one; how to keep the theatre open for business in the face of government cuts.

The stress was predictably enormous.

Olivier saw the job as 'the most tiresome, awkward, embarrassing, forever-compromise, never-right, thankless fucking post that anyone could be fool enough to take on'. For Nunn it was like 'juggling plates, while riding a unicycle, on a tightrope, over Niagara Falls', while Eyre suggested that 'the combination of doing productions and attempting to be thoroughly on the case in every area is a one-way ticket to the madhouse.'

At the Old Vic, the National's temporary home in the early years, Olivier created and headed a scintillating company, which included Maggie Smith, Michael Redgrave, Joan Plowright and Tom Courtenay, as well as emerging stars such as Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Lynn Redgrave and Robert Stephens. But his tenure was beset with problems, not least his own debilitating illness, and his volatile relationship with Tynan, who favoured more challenging plays that reflected matters of public debate. …

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