The hope for a National Theatre stretches right back to the Victorian age but it wasn't until 1962 that the theatre's story officially began. After protracted discussions over funding, and a dismally slow construction pace, the decision was made to establish a National Theatre company without waiting for the theatre to be opened. In the interim, the company would perform at the Old Vic and in August 1962, the National's first artistic director was named as Laurence Olivier. The company's first performance (Hamlet) followed on 22 October 1963, and the National Theatre was born.
The Old Vic episode, though protracted, was in many ways glorious. Directors included William Gaskill, Franco Zeffirelli, Jonathan Miller and Olivier himself. The list of actors collected for Zeffirelli’s production of Much Ado about Nothing alone spelt magnificence – among them Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen. Having an actor-manager of Olivier’s stature at the helm made the National a base for the best of British theatre, as it was intended to be.To select 10 productions from that first decade is an invidious task – the choices are open to challenge. But to try and measure the scale of the National Theatre's achievement one must identify those shows it’s still worth talking about and summon them up from the dusty vaults of national memory. Away we go…
Although the National Theatre Company launched in its temporary home at the Old Vic in 1963 with a Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole and directed by Laurence Olivier, its first hour was not its finest. Far more significant was when Olivier, the company’s artistic director, stepped into the title role of Othello (in black-face) to electrifying effect the following year. “Nowhere else in the world could a more completely realised performance than his have been seen,” Simon Callow observed in his history of the NT, published in 2007. The production, which also starred Maggie Smith as Desdemona, was rendered into a film the following year.
The National Health, directed by Michael Blakemore, starring Tom Baker and Jim Dale; 1969
Peter Nichols’s play collided the grim experience of those reaching the end of life in an NHS ward with a pastiche TV soap opera (Nurse Norton’s Affair); the result, shaped and directed by Blakemore, was a sensation that won the Evening Standard Best Play award. As Blakemore records in his memoir Stage Blood: “On one side of the stage… challenges were bravely met and tragedy averted; on the other death made its random and monotonous progress through the ward… Both Peter and I began to realise that we were on to something that maybe hadn’t been done on stage before.” The show marked a return to the NT’s popular health, after a slight dip in fortunes.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Michael Blakemore, starring Laurence Olivier, 1971
Michael Billington in the Guardian was spellbound by this account of Eugene O’Neill's posthumously published autobiographical masterpiece, dominated as it was by the fading grandeur of Laurence Olivier in his last major role for the company: “Olivier’s James Tyrone is a massive performance moving from an initial nervy jocularity to a throttled, brick-red despair at his wife’s relapse to a thrilling, soul-baring intensity in his cups… For a genuinely great actor to play a nearly-great actor is the hardest technical feat of all: Olivier does it to perfection.” Of this highly popular production he added: “Such is the quality of acting and direction we seem to be not merely watching great drama but to be eavesdropping on life itself.”
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