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Michael Coveney: 50 years of National Theatre memories

On the day the National Theatre marks its 50th birthday, our chief critic recalls some personal highlights

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Peter O'Toole prepares for the opening night of Hamlet on 22 October 1963

A life of theatre-going over the past 50 years is inconceivable without the National Theatre. Although I missed the opening production of Peter O'Toole as Hamlet (and didn't miss much, by all accounts; it played for just 22 disappointing performances), I was soon queuing for three-shilling seats in the slips, right at the top of the Old Vic.

I can still see Laurence Olivier ghosting subliminally across the upstage vista as Tattle in Love for Love as though it were yesterday. It's hard to explain the animal magnetism of his first entrance as Othello, or the extraordinary feeling of love and awe rolling across the theatre towards him at every curtain call. And then you'd pass him on the street, suited and bespectacled like a bank manager, hardly a beast at all; where had that magic gone?

In fact, I paid only two shillings to see Othello. It was the day of my Roman history paper in my Latin A-level, and my younger brother had gone up to Waterloo to queue first thing for the matinee. We stood at the back of the stalls and the most extraordinary thing happened to me. When Olivier was seized, frighteningly, in his fit, the tension of my exam in the morning was released through his own body rattle, and I rushed into the stalls bar and vomited copiously into a lavatory bowl.

Again, you can't really explain this, and you certainly don't get any sense of Olivier's physical power in the badly done screen version. Noel Coward himself directed Hay Fever in 1964, which was glorious, even though Edith Evans was too old for Judith Bliss. Maggie Smith got the show's biggest laugh as Myra Arundel - the character who goes about using sex as a shrimping net - by remarking at the breakfast table: "This haddock is disgusting." The lighting was very bright, too, and Louise Purnell's dark helmet of hair simply shone.

As the decade went on, some purists felt the National became a glorified rep. Not for me it didn't. My only experience of rep was in Hornchurch, Essex, and there was nothing glorified about that at all. So I saw Madge Ryan as a matchless Mother Courage, Olivier stupendous in The Dance of Death, Albert Finney hilariously hare-lipped in Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear directed by Jacques Charon of the Comedie Francaise, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in Franco Zeffirelli's Sicilian, magical Much Ado, Joan Plowright and Anthony Hopkins remarkable in John Dexter's stripped down, bare-boards A Woman Killed With Kindness, a revelation.

Dexter was responsible, too, for the brilliant production of Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Stephens incandescent as the sun god Atahuallpa, his own personal tribute to Olivier. Other images: John Stride and Edward Petherbridge on a bare stage tossing coins in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Diana Rigg suspended on a crescent moon in Jumpers while Michael Hordern fidgeted distractedly in his cardigan pockets as the moral philosopher George Moore. Constance Cummings in Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Yes, Cummings, as well as Olivier in that play. I was in the Garrick Club for lunch yesterday with Richard Pilbrow, Olivier's first lighting consultant and designer, and founder of Theatre Projects, and I was told that the beautiful portrait of Cummings that hangs behind the bar is the most popular of all with members. On the other side of the room, Olivier grins wickedly, his Garrick Club tie undone, his reputation unassailable, his voice an echoing cackle still.

You can read the most wonderful account of that Long Day's Journey by its director Michael Blakemore in his new book, Stage Blood, as well as some unbeatable verbal portraiture of Olivier himself, Dexter and the increasingly tragic figure of Kenneth Tynan, the man who thought that being our greatest critic just wasn't enough. Tynan was Olivier's masterstroke appointment as literary manager, though it soon turned sour. But not as sour as Blakemore's relationship with Olivier's successor, Peter Hall.

I attended the last night at the Old Vic (with Ralph Richardson, Gielgud as Hamlet, and Sybil Thorndike rising on her sticks in the stalls to acknowledge the hand-over) and the opening of the South Bank theatre in early 1976, by which time I was a fully practising critic. The very first performance was of Happy Days with a gloriously serene Peggy Ashcroft in the Lyttelton at a matinee, with another brilliant Blakemore production, Ben Travers' Plunder, in the evening. I went with my friend Helen Dawson, soon to become John Osborne's fifth wife and therefore lost to me for ever as a first night companion.

It all took time getting used to. The royal gala opening of the Olivier, later in the same year, which I also attended, began with a horrible version of the National Anthem by Harrison Birtwistle, soon followed by Olivier making a cringingly orotund and vaguely ironic speech (in which he praised the cladding on Peter Hall's shoe for getting his foot through the door) and a totally disastrous production by Bill Bryden of Goldoni's Il campiello with, for some reason, Peggy Mount in the cast.

Bryden soon made amends, though, with his magnificently earthy, hard-drinking Cottesloe company in The Mysteries, especially, and many other great nights, leading to the world premiere of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Paul Scofield soared in Amadeus and Harley Granville Barker's The Madras House, but fell to earth in Othello, Michael Gambon made his name as Galileo (Simon Callow followed his Mozart with a Little Monk); Hall encouraged Alan Ayckbourn to run his own company - his production of A View From the Bridge starring Gambon was a masterpiece, and he also wrote possibly his greatest play, A Small Family Business (again with Gambon); and there were other fine companies led by Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge, and by Philip Prowse of the Glasgow Citizens.

There were several fine texts by the poet Tony Harrison, who also straddled the Old Vic and South Bank regimes, notably with Diana Rigg and Alec McCowen in Phedra Britannica and then, for Hall, the all-masked Oresteia, perhaps the best of Hall's work in that period. The spirit of adventure and catholicity of taste has been sustained since Hall by Richard Eyre especially, and the all-day performance of David Hare's trilogy (running in tandem with what Ken Campbell called his own "bald" trilogy of solo shows in the Cottesloe) was one of the truly great Olivier occasions, something only a National Theatre could possibly do.

There were far too few performances of a wonderful Love's Labour's Lost starring Joseph Fiennes as Berowne under Trevor Nunn, who continued the adventure by opening up another small auditorium, the Loft, in the upper part of the building; its latter-day companion, The Shed at ground level, has been one of Nicholas Hytner's great innovations.

And just as Hare was Eyre's playwright, so Alan Bennett has been Hytner's, with The History Boys sitting alongside War Horse, London Road, Carousel and One Man, Two Guvnors at the very peak of his achievement.

Musical theatre has wormed its way into the National's repertoire, just about making up for the disappointment of the board stopping a planned production of Guys and Dolls with Olivier and Geraldine McEwan. Richard Eyre's revival started to make amends, and now Rufus Norris, Hytner's successor, may take up the new musical challenge by building on his brilliant success with Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork on London Road.