The centenary of Laurence Olivier’s birth was celebrated at the National Theatre yesterday (Sunday 23 September) with the unveiling of a life-size statue on the edge of Theatre Square, facing the entrance to the theatre, by the River Thames, and a performance in the NT’s Olivier auditorium (See News, 18 May 2007).

Olivier, the first director of the National Theatre when it opened at the Old Vic in 1963, was born in Dorking, Surrey, on 22 May 1907. The celebration at the NT was delayed to coincide with the delivery of the sculptor Angela Conner’s statue, which shows Olivier in the role of Hamlet, high on a plinth, holding his sword in a gesture that represents, said his elder son Tarquin Olivier, his belief in the NT.

The ceremony was attended by Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright, and their three children (Tarquin was Olivier’s son by his first wife, the actress Jill Esmonde; Olivier subsequently married Vivien Leigh, and then Dame Joan in 1961), and by many actors in his NT company, including Maggie Smith, Anna Carteret, Sheila Reid, Graham Crowden, Charles Kay, Edward Petherbridge and Ronald Pickup.

They were joined by playwrights Harold Pinter, David Hare and Tom Stoppard, directors Frith Banbury, Peter Hall (Olivier’s successor as head of the NT in 1973), Michael Blakemore and Jonathan Miller, and by many other actors including Geoffrey Palmer, Keith Baxter, Simon Callow, Janet McTeer, Nancy Carroll, Lindsay Duncan, Paterson Joseph, Antony Sher, Michael Pennington and Alex Jennings.

Tarquin Olivier paid tribute to the many donors towards the appeal for the statue whose names will be enshrined on a plaque on the plinth and said that the role of Hamlet was chosen because his father always said it was impossible to cheat in the role, and it was one of the few Shakespeare characters he played without disguise or prosthetics.

Richard Attenborough - who revealed that Olivier had once invited him to be in a proposed production of Guys and Dolls and to play Shylock, “one of his few misjudgements” (neither show happened) – said that, without Olivier, the National simply would not have come into being, and that what he did in his life was unique – “He was a colossus in world theatre and also a giant in the cinema.”

The two-hour performance told Olivier’s life story – he died on 11 July 1989 and was only the third actor, after David Garrick and Henry Irving, to have his ashes interred in Westminster Abbey – in the form of readings, film clips and reminiscences. It was produced by Nicholas Hytner, the NT’s current artistic director, and Angus MacKechnie, with music played on stage by the South Bank Sinfonia under the direction of Simon Over.

The Hamlet theme was maintained to the end when present-day members of the NT shared the lines of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with the brooding, blond-haired image of Olivier in the 1948 black and white movie which he directed. Another poignant moment in the performance came when a clip of the scene in Richard III where Olivier’s Crookback woos Claire Bloom as the Lady Anne by the coffin of the man he has murdered, her husband, was followed by Claire Bloom herself stepping forward on the stage to proclaim a rave review of Olivier’s performance.

Olivier’s great roles at the National included Othello, Solness in The Master Builder, the Captain in The Dance of Death, Astrov in Uncle Vanya, Shylock, and James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. His last appearance at the Old Vic – he never played on the Olivier stage, but addressed the opening night gala performance attended by the Queen in 1976 – was as a Glaswegian Trotskyite trades unionist in The Party by Trevor Griffiths. On the last night of that play, said Gawn Grainger, Olivier received a thunderous ovation with a seductive smile, got down and kissed the stage – “his mistress, his lover…there was absolutely nothing sentimental about it.”

- by Michael Coveney