Saluting the National: 25 Years on the South BankDate: 22 October 2001
This week, the National Theatre celebrates the 25th anniversary of its official opening on London's South Bank. In commemoration, Mark Shenton looks back in admiration at the history of this great British institution, mooted as long ago as 1848.
Theatre companies, being living organisms that are only sustained by human beings both performing and watching the work it does, are more than mere bricks, glass and mortar. But for the last quarter of a century, the National Theatre company has been indivisible from the distinctive, purpose-built white concrete building it inhabits on London's South Bank.
Art & Heart
As it marks the 25th anniversary of its official opening this week, this much loved and also frequently loathed building is only part of the National Theatre story; the rest is its people and its productions. But not all of the work they do takes within those concrete walls. As behoves a company that calls itself national, its productions frequently tour elsewhere around the country (and as an international theatre, it also welcomes productions from abroad or elsewhere in Britain to visit it, too).
Then there are other publicly unseen initiatives it participates in, such as the developmental work for directors, actors and writers done at the Studio (located adjoining the Old Vic, the National's original home, nearby in The Cut), or the educational work it undertakes in and with schools.
But if home isn't where all of the art is, it remains where the heart is.
That heartbeat is heard loudest in its three different, distinctive auditoria, which between them have over 2,300 seats to fill, six nights a week. This is where the work meets the public that pays for it, not just via the price on their ticket stubs but also via their taxes (the National receives the highest subsidy of any theatre in the country). That presents a logistical, not to say philosophical, programming nightmare for any artistic director to face: how to put on work that will attract audiences on that scale, but also honour whatever its perceived responsibility as a flagship theatre should be.
If each of the three incumbents of the post since the National relocated from the Old Vic to the South Bank have faced inevitable criticism for some of their choices, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn have all engaged in a lively, occasionally acrimonious, debate on exactly this subject while attempting to keep the seats occupied and the books balanced.
As Nunn has commented, "I have found over the last three years that there are many conflicting definitions of 'the responsibility of the National Theatre', but interestingly there is almost nothing by way of a charter of documentation of a founder's creed." Instead, it is for each artistic director to set his own, and for Nunn (who is departing in 2003), he is determined that "it shall be, to a greater degree that ever before, a theatre for everybody, delivering coherently and cohesively the best of many disciplines, a National Theatre that indeed is many things but always more than the sum of its parts."
To see where the National is now, we need to look to its past. The idea for a national theatre was first mooted over 150 years ago, when a London publisher Effingham Wilson published a tract suggesting it in 1848. Other proponents that emerged in the next century ranged from Winston Churchill to playwrights and critics Harley Granville-Barker and Bernard Shaw. In 1949, parliament passed the National Theatre Bill to authorise £1 million of public money to enable a structure to be built, and in 1951, the first foundation stone was actually laid on the South Bank. But these plans came to nought.
In 1956, the critic Kenneth Tynan (who would later join the company's first artistic director Laurence Olivier in actually running the nascent company) wrote: "Must it again be urged that Britain is the only European country which lacks a national theatre? And that the public money which gave us a visual library, the National Gallery, is needed to provide a living library of plays?"
On 22 October 1963, those ambitions came to fruition when the National Theatre was at last born at the Old Vic with the opening of a production of Hamlet, starring Peter O'Toole in the title role. With Olivier at the helm, it quickly established itself and its reputation, as well as those of numerous actors who would become household names. It also quickly spread itself out from the Old Vic - where it was unable to meet the popular demand for its work, since it had less than a thousand seats - to seasons in the West End and tours to bigger theatres in the regions.
But it was always the ambition to have a larger, dedicated London base of its own; and as early as November 1963, Denys Lasdun was the architect appointed to the task of designing it. It would be some 13 more troubled years before his work would actually be completed.
Before & After
There's an inevitable nostalgia attached to the past, and the years of struggle and graft that are buried within it. For Diana Rigg, a star of the last years before the company moved, "The Vic was a glorious theatre to play in, it just gave you a present as soon as you stepped on to the stage. I loved its accessibility, its traditional shape. We were very close as a company, we felt part of one project. After the move from the Vic, I did nothing at the National for 20 years. I was very much part of the old guard, I was bred and nurtured in that company process. Suddenly it seemed to disappear, to my great regret."
Likewise, Denis Quilley comments that the Old Vic functioned like "an old-fashioned rep company, all of whom knew each other very well. In a place the size of the South Bank building, you can't have the same kind of communal feeling." But both actors have long since been embraced by the new address, where they are both currently starring in Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy, even if Rigg for her part has loudly complained about the dressing-rooms (comparing them to "battery-hen hatches").
Art & Arteries
The actors who tread the boards haven't been alone in their South Bank reservations over the years. Playwright Alan Bennett admits that he's always been somewhat ambivalent about the building itself. "It's better inside than out," he feels, "with the foyers, in particular, interesting and lively, even living up to those fanciful drawings where architects populate their constructions with idly gossiping creatures who seem to have all the time in the world."
If the theatres themselves are the heart, its these public access arteries - with their full calendar of free foyer exhibitions and live music, a bar that is open daily from noon to 11.00pm and one of the best-stocked theatre bookshops in the capital - that feed them with both spiritual and corporeal nourishment.
The riverside complex has, in the process, long evolved into a celebrated fixture on the world theatrical landscape, one that is both uniquely welcoming to audiences and welcome for its often unique and challenging repertoire. Here's to the next 25 years.