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Read Nicholas Hytner's introduction to the NT 50th anniversary gala

The National Theatre, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a star-studded gala on Saturday, has 'always been about who works here', said artistic director Nicholas Hytner in his programme introduction

By • London
Take a bow: Some National Theatre legends during Saturday's curtain call
Take a bow: Some National Theatre legends during Saturday's curtain call

There are at least 50 different versions of this show. We have two hours to put 50 years on stage, two hours to conjure up an impression of what the National Theatre has achieved. Although we've tried to cover as much as possible by seeking out short scenes from as many plays as possible, I'm horrified by how much we've had to leave out. So it may be easiest to start by saying what this evening is not.

It's not a compendium of the best things the National has done over the last 50 years. "Best" is best left to the arts pages. And in any event, many of our most famous productions of the classical repertoire were celebrated for performances by actors who are no longer with us. So our classical work is – inevitably – less present than it should be. Nor have we tried to represent only the most influential or important plays to have started life on our stages. Many of them defy any attempt to lift out a short scene that is enjoyable, or comprehensible, out of context, and we've made the assumption that tonight's television audience shouldn't have to know anything about the plays from which the show is put together.

So it seemed impossible, for instance, to find a four- or five-minute scene from Patrick Marber's Closer, which is devastating in its entirety. And the same problem ruled out Michael Frayn's Democracy, Pam Gems' Stanley, David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, Christopher Hampton's Tales From Hollywood, Nicholas Wright's Vincent In Brixton. The shortest extract that does justice to Harold Pinter's Betrayal (a play that attracts any number of superlatives) lasts 12 minutes; the same is true of Lucy Prebble's The Effect, and even the shortest story from Martin McDonagh's amazing play The Pillowman is surprisingly long – though none of them felt like it in performance. Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun has a cumulative power that would be diminished by the presentation of a bleeding chunk. You could fill an entire evening with scenes by our most prolific writers – Pinter, Shaffer, David Hare, Tom Stoppard (the only playwright to have given us a new play in each decade of our half century), Alan Ayckbourn, Howard Brenton, Alan Bennett. All of them have written major plays which aren't represented tonight.

Although the structure of tonight's show is loosely chronological, it isn't trying to tell the full story of the National Theatre. We have collaborated with the BBC on a historical narrative – Adam Low and Martin Rosenbaum's documentary Arena: The National Theatre, shown over the last couple of weeks on BBC4, will soon be available on DVD. It's terrific. I recommend it.

And although tonight's staggering cast list is testament to how deep-rooted is the affection for the National amongst the acting profession, we can't do full justice to even the most luminous performances that have graced our stages. A precarious idea brought into life by Sir Laurence Olivier, the 20th century's greatest actor, has at some point embraced almost all of the great actors that have followed in his wake. But even the most powerful of stage performances survive only in the memory of those who saw them. For those who were there, tonight's re-creations are maybe best seen as theatrical madeleines – enough to prompt a shiver of recollection. For those who weren't, maybe they can give an idea of what the fuss was about.

That there has been too much to choose from is the fault of Laurence Olivier and his successors – Peter Hall, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn. The flow of memorable work has never stopped. But I hope the scenes we've chosen give some idea of the range of our work, of the way we've always sought to play the past and the present against each other, of our determination to reflect the nation on our stages, and of our appetite for new ideas and new forms. And I hope the evening is a reminder of the pre-eminence of our actors, writers, directors and designers – and that its scale and complexity (both considerable) demonstrate that they are supported by stage and technical teams second to none.

Though a few minutes of the show come from the video archive (from televised studio adaptations of NT productions, from publicity material, from footage shot for awards ceremonies), most of it is live. The more recent the production, the easier it's been to get together the original cast – most of the second half of tonight's show is played by the actors who first played their parts, sometimes – it has to be said – when they aren't any longer entirely age appropriate. (Eight history boys in their mid-30s may require the suspension of your disbelief.) But all the actors in the show have been members of the National Theatre at some point in the last 50 years, and you'll see – decade by decade – how astonishing is their collective distinction.

Download the full programme here

I want to single out only the small band who were part of Sir Laurence Olivier's National Theatre company when it first took up residence at the Old Vic 50 years ago. Dame Joan Plowright went last week to the Old Vic itself to record a speech from Saint Joan, which she played there in 1963; Dame Maggie Smith will give a speech from The Beaux' Stratagem; Charles Kay will appear in a scene from The National Health in the same role he created 45 years ago, and Sir Michael Gambon and Sir Derek Jacobi will take the roles in No Man's Land originally played by their great predecessors Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud. I couldn't be happier or prouder that they are here and that 50 years on, they are still carrying the torch.

My grateful thanks are due to the playwrights who have allowed us to hack small chunks out of their work. We have tried to root tonight's show in the way it was staged by the directors and designers who took care of its many different scenes first time around. I am grateful to them, and sorry that we shall sometimes – inevitably – fall short of what they achieved. The National Theatre's physical surroundings have changed since it took up residence at the Old Vic in 1963, but its identity has never been bound up in bricks and mortar (or concrete). It has always been about who works here. Tonight's cast, and tonight's audience, are a small part only of who we've been; and when the next celebration comes round, in 2063, I have no doubt that there will be as much to choose from as there has been tonight.

See Also: Michael Coveney's blog on the National Theatre's 50th anniversary gala

Live from the National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is viewable on BBC iPlayer until 9 November 2013

Tags: National TheatreNicholas HytnerDavid HareJudi DenchMichael GambonRichard EyreMaggie SmithPeter HallNT 50Derek Jacobi


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