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The history men

How the National Theatre turned a series of crises into some great drama

Irving Wardle | November/December 2013

Fifty years old this October, the National Theatre is in the midst of an £80m makeover which will mark the third chapter in its life. It is fortunate to have survived the past two.

In 1963 it was hard to believe that the long-frustrated idea of a British national theatre was about to become a reality. Ideas, in fact, were precisely the issue. Living institutions do generally roll in on an idea. But the NT was simply legislated into existence. The only idea its supporters could claim was that it would function as a theatrical lending library. Add the suspicion that, under Laurence Olivier, it was an actor-managerial dictatorship masquerading as an ensemble troupe, and you were left wondering what this new monster was for.

Olivier’s opening production of "Hamlet" seemed to confirm the worst fears. Instead of launching the promised ensemble, it was a run-of-the-mill show featuring four West End stars, none shedding much light. During a poignant lull in Ophelia’s final mad scene there was a piercing scream from one of the exit corridors. Whoever it was, she was screaming for the rest of us.

Then, in the first of several miracles in the organ­isation’s history, there followed three months of marvellous shows which conclusively established the NT’s rights to existence. Disregarding the current fashion for new English writing and politically relevant Shakespeare, the plays were all from the stan­dard repertory and presented with a dazzling authority that turned your preconceptions inside out. Restoration comedy emerged as robustly masculine. Under his grinning mask, Noel Coward turned out to be a stern moralist. English actors, never having pulled it off before, proved gloriously capable of playing French farce. Yes. The NT was a library. It was where you went to experience old plays as brand new, and, later on, recognise new plays (by Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, Peter Nichols) as modern classics.

At this stage in his career Olivier had nothing more to prove. His regime succeeded largely because he surrounded himself not with past colleagues but with powerful young men who had made their name in the new-playwrights movement of the 1950s: William Gaskill and John Dexter, who came from the Royal Court as his associate directors, and Kenneth Tynan, the Observer critic (and persistent scourge of Olivier’s ex-wife, Vivien Leigh) who joined the NT as literary manager. Each had a distinct place in the spectrum. Dexter excelled in animating elaborate spectacles and in creative partnerships with playwrights. When Peter Shaffer got stuck in the writing of "Black Comedy"which shows characters blundering around as if in the darkDexter got him going again by marooning him overnight in a house with no electricity.

Gaskill combined lucid powers of analysis with an earthy relish for traps, doorways and other basic stage elements, which made him equally at home with Farquhar and Brecht. Tynan, unfairly mistrusted both then and now, managed to open the door to new English writers and the unexplored European and American repertory: disastrously in the case of Rolf Hochhuth’s "Soldiers" (which accused Churchill of a political murder), but triumphantly with Hecht and MacArthur’s "The Front Page" and O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey into Night". More immediately interesting to the public were the actors: names like Geraldine McEwan, Maggie Smith, Colin Blakely, Robert Lang, Anthony Hopkins and Ronald Pickup. Some of them started off as unknowns, but all were soon acknowledged as front-rank artists. And should things start coming unstuck, they had an employer who had only to set foot on the stage to fill the house (as happened with "Long Day’s Journey" in 1971). Olivier had been in earnest when he said his priority was to build a company. What he built was uniquea crack ensemble troupe run by an actor-manager.

By the 1970s the honeymoon was over. Dexter and Gaskill had moved on, and Olivier replaced them with Jonathan Miller and Michael Blakemoretwo fiercely ambitious men working for a boss they both revered and mistrusted. Their time at the National was to yield some of the best work so far. It also spanned the end of the Olivier regime and the company’s move, in 1976, from the Old Vic to Denys Lasdun’s vast boarded concrete bunker on the South Bank.

This marked the second chapter in the NT's history, and it began with everything going horribly wrong. Olivier, sacked by the Old Vic governors in 1949, now suffered the same treatment again when the NT board eased him out without even consulting him about his successor. Only once did he ever appear on the stage that bore his name. It was the territory of the incoming artistic director, Peter Hall, whose task was to produce two or three times as many shows a year as at the Old Vic. Its survival depended on the still-new principle of state subsidy, which could be gobbled up by the enormous bill of staffing and maintaining the building. The importance of politicians, bureaucrats and wealthy donors correspondingly increased, as reflected in the names of the NT's three stagesthe Olivier, the Lyttelton and the Cottesloe; one actor to two establishment grandees (Oliver Lyttelton, a National chairman and former member of Churchill’s war cabinet; Lord [John] Cottesloe, a chairman of the Arts Council). Olivier himself must have remembered the words of Ralph Richardson before the 1949 bombshell: "This will be the end of us. These boys are not going to stand for two actors having this power."

Hall, however, was not just an actor. He was a silver-tongued boardroom performer, at home with the likes of Lord Goodman and Sir Max Rayne, and a capable player in the power game. Perhaps the enter­prise was too big for the government to allow it to fail. The immediate problem for Hall was getting into a building which was months behind schedule and still unfinished. In the event, he simply moved in. Otherwise, he once told me, "it would have stayed unfinished for ever, like a half-built Spanish hotel".

Once he was inside, further torment lay in store. This was the 1970s, the height of British industrial unrest, and the NT became a choice target for unofficial strikes by the stagehands’ union, the National Union of Theatrical Television and Kine Employees. These came to a head in 1977 when a workman was fired for faulty bathroom repairs, bringing NATTKE out on a strike that hit the front pages, leading to the cancellation of several performances of a Robert Bolt play about Stalin, and prompting the New Statesman’s resident satirist, Roger Woddis, to a Shakespeare parody: "Shall I suspend thee for a plumber’s pay?"

As if this were not enough, Hall, having got rid of Tynan, also succeeded in antagonising Miller and Blakemore: responding to a failed Miller show by dropping his future productions, and sidelining Blakemore as disloyal by presenting a critical internal memo as a press conspiracy (not to mention stopping his salary), leaving the two men no option but to resign. Blakemore recounts this sorry tale in wounding detail in a new book, "Stage Blood" (Faber), which is as engrossing and enlightening a theatre memoir as I have ever read. But although it pulls no punches in describing Hall’s ways of profiting from West End transfers, and absenting himself from the National to take lucrative freelance jobs elsewhere, the book is equally insistent on his huge talent and energy as a director and administrator.

This is the key issue, and the reason why we have cause to feel more grateful to Peter Hall than to anyone else in these 50 years. When he took over there was no British precedent for a theatre on this scale. It could not operate as a simple hierarchy like Olivier's Old Vic; and it could easily have shrunk into the bureau­cratic paralysis of a continental civil-service playhouse, locked in a repertoire of routine classical revivals. Under Hall, this never happened. The structure changed, but the flow of creative energy continued.

There were flops, but for every show that went on you could be sure that it had the passionate backing of someone in the building. The roll-call of successes went on to include Hall's Pinter and Shaffer premieres, Bill Bryden’s promenade productions, new work by Stoppard and Ayckbourn, and the continuing redefinition of classics as in Olivier’s first season.

The matrix was set for Hall’s successors, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner, and for the appearance of work like the David Hare trilogy, Stoppard’s "Arcadia", Michael Frayn’s "Copenhagen", and ground-breaking new work as various as Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America" and Blythe and Cork’s documentary musical "London Road". By the end of its first decade, the walls of the building were saturated with dramatic history, and people have even become fond of the place. Now you cannot imagine the British theatre scene without it. We are lucky that it has happened in our time.

National Theatre 50th anniversary gala Olivier, London, and BBC2, Nov 2nd

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/50

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