October 1963. The Old Vic theatre, imagine. The lights begin to dim, glow from the chandeliers slowly fades out, the luxe theatre curtains twitch with anticipation. A theatre in darkness, patrons shuffling, and the soft reeling as the curtains pull back to reveal the stage. The National Theatre on that day gave its very first performance of Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier and featuring Peter O’Toole as the eponymous and ill-fated lead.
Fifty years later, and the National’s semi-centennial celebrations are to be marked this autumn in a gala evening, broadcast from the Olivier Theatre on BBC2, with an additional two Arena documentaries being shown on BBC4. It will feature some of Britain’s most esteemed Thespians, Dame Judi Dench, Frances de la Tour, Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellan to name but a few. Sir Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre’s Director, who will also be directing some of the gala’s evening festivities has yet to divulge any details on what is in store but said that the programmes would “tell the story of those 50 years through a montage of highlights”
So, whilst the National Theatre allow themselves this evening of theatrical grandeur and remembrance, what can we as the public expect to see from them this year?
The productions announced by Sir Hytner earlier this week, are both familiar and new; two of the National’s highest grossing productions, War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors featuring Rufus Hound will be returning on tour, as will Shakespeare’s Othello. Eugene O’Neills Strange Interlude, George Kaiser’s From Morning Till Midnight, and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will also feature in this years series of programmes. The long-awaited musical The Light Princess from Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson is also set to be staged this year after being put on hold due last year, and Sam Mendes of Skyfall fame will return to the National to direct King Lear in early 2014. Other works set to be shown are Bullet Catch, the death-defying ‘magic show’ from Rob Drummond, which played at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, The TEAM’s Mission Drift and an adaptation of Emil and the Detectives for family audiences will be shown at Christmas.
There is a genuine focus on the future at the National, redevelopment for the future being one that features predominantly in 2013. This redevelopment, which Sir Hytner will be overseeing personally before he steps down as Director in some two years time, is aptly named ‘NT Future’. A large project that includes the creation of a new production building, the refurbishment of the Cottesloe Theatre, and the formation of a Clore Learning Centre, all of which is £9 million away from their fundraising target.While the Cottesloe, one of the most experimental of all of the National’s houses, is closed, a structure called ‘The Shed‘, a space as equally experimental, will be open to the public in Theatre Square.
Amidst claims that theatre is losing its touch with the world around it, the same cannot be said of the prowess of the National Theatre, in 2012 its audience reached 3.2 million people globally, and accounted for 35% of London’s total play-goers in the same year. Despite facing cuts from the Arts Council England, the enthusiasm and charity demonstrated by the public and its members, and the continuing success of the National’s programmes, will make its fiftieth anniversary its most eminent and exciting year yet.