Fifty Shades of Great

London’s Royal National Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary in October, with Britain’s theatrical giants at its core. Haaretz’s theater critic recalls his personal highlights

Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts

Anyone who buys tickets online for the Royal National Theatre in London is added to their mailing list and receives information about upcoming premieres. That’s how I recently found out that Sir Richard Eyre - the theater’s artistic director from 1987 to 1998 - would be returning to direct Luigi Pirandello’s play “La Liola.”

In that same email, the theater asked me to tell them if I’d had an experience there that I would like to share, because they were interested in including selected essays as part of the events for their 50th anniversary celebrations in October. These events will include exhibits about the theater’s history, lectures about its past, and television broadcasts inspired by its productions. I thought that, instead of sharing those stories with them, I would share my fond memories with you.

And then the fact — that I had been aware of for a long time, but had repressed — jumped before my eyes: that the National Theatre, which is like a foundation stone for lovers of theater and theatrical mecca, was actually quite young for a theatrical institution. Habima, for example, is more than 40 years older, and received the official title of our national theater five years before the Royal National Theatre was founded.

The misconception in estimating the Royal National Theatre’s age stems from the fact that its reputation preceded it all over the world even without the title “National,” thanks to two factors: One is William Shakespeare, whose excellent poetry and marvelous contribution to the English language, together with his dramatic abilities, set the bar high for theaters all over the world, in all languages. The other is the quality of stagecraft shown by generations of actors and actresses, some of whom were also producers and theatrical agents and left strong impressions in the hearts and minds of many theatergoers in Europe and the United States.

For all practical purposes, we can say that the Royal National Theatre already existed for many years before the British established an institution of that name. The arguments over whether it made sense to found such an institution and, if so, what its character should be, went on for almost a century. It was only after World War II, when Britain began to reformulate its position, recover from the victory and estimate its socioeconomic price, that the conditions for establishing a theater that would be known as “national” were created. The task of founding it was given to Laurence Olivier, who was considered the highest-ranking and most prominent person in Britain’s stage community.

In 1963, the company with which Olivier performed “Uncle Vanya” in Chichester merged with the Old Vic Theater Company (which was firmly managed, with a limited budget and impressive quality, by Lilian Mary Baylis) and, on October 22 of that year, the National Theatre staged its premiere performance at the Old Vic Theater: Peter O’Toole in “Hamlet.”

My personal memories of the National Theatre begin during the pioneering period of Sir Laurence. There, over a three-week period in the summer of 1971, I saw Olivier himself in the role of Shylock, directed by Jonathan Miller - to this day I remember Shylock’s shriek of pain from offstage, after the trial scene, giving me chills down my spine (Joan Plowright was Portia); a young Anthony Hopkins in “A Woman Killed with Kindness” by Thomas Heywood and as the emperor in Arrabal’s “The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria.” I later read that the Argentinian director had wanted to open the roof of the Old Vic for the performance so the audience could see the stars, and Olivier had told him: “Dear Mr. Gracia, the Germans didn’t succeed in destroying this building, and neither will you.”

Olivier shaped his company, together with the repertoire he felt was appropriate for a national theater. During those formative years a permanent location for the theater was also found on London’s South Bank. The building was planned by architect Denys Lasdun, but it was Sir Peter Hall, who succeeded Olivier as artistic director, who oversaw the transfer of the theater to its new concrete fortress.

Hall ran the National Theatre for 15 years, a time when the greatest actors of the English stage — Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson — still trod its boards even as Hall tried to manage the building’s demands. At the end of his term he left his diaries, which are obligatory reading for any theater manager, since they document the inevitable gap between artistic pretension and the compromises of management, between high hopes and the lows of day-to-day human decision making. From that time, I remember the marvelous production of Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” based on the story by Damon Runyon and directed by Richard Eyre, with Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit (a role that Olivier longed to play but never did).

Eyre replaced Hall as the theater’s artistic director in 1987. During his 10-year tenure he directed, among others, David Hare’s trilogy about contemporary England and Ian Holm as King Lear at the small Cottesloe Theatre. Also during Eyre’s term, Nicholas Hytner directed “The Madness of George III” by Alan Bennett (1992), with Nigel Hawthorne in the title role, which he adapted into a successful film in 1994. Hytner’s first directing job at the theater (by then called the Royal National Theatre) was Joshua Sobol’s “Ghetto,” in 1989.

Eyre - who, after retiring as artistic director, also published his diary, “National Service: Diary of a Decade,” which contained a candid description of his anxieties and periods of depression - was succeeded by Sir Trevor Nunn, the successful director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (together with producer Cameron Mackintosh, Nunn had staged “Les Miserables”). His term was brief — only five years, from 1998 to 2003 - but in 2002 I managed to see “The Coast of Utopia,” Tom Stoppard’s monumental trilogy about the Russian revolutionaries. In 2003, Nicholas Hytner was appointed artistic director.

Even before he began his term, Hytner announced that he wanted the Royal National Theatre to be a theater for everyone. He offered series subscriptions at particularly affordable prices, and worked to have theater productions shown in cinemas and on television. Mostly, though, he was referring to his desire to have working at the Royal National Theatre become the heart’s desire of every self-respecting person in theater, because of its high level and the lively creative atmosphere that prevailed there, even though it was a large, publicly supported organization laboring under difficult commercial conditions, and thus always in danger.

Hytner will be presiding over the 50th anniversary celebrations. Whoever succeeds him will have enough time to plan his entry into the post: he is to be appointed in the fall, either just before the events or as they begin. His predecessors will be tough acts to follow. While 50 years is a brief time for a theater, the National Theatre upholds a centuries-old tradition — and I hope I will be privileged to attend many more productions there.

The Royal National Theatre in London. Fifty years of excellence. Photo: Alan StantonCredit: Alan Stanton