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Michael Coveney: Ghosts walk abroad as National and RSC bring up their bodies

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On 22 October the National Theatre will be exactly 50 years old. On that date in 1963, Peter O'Toole opened in a so-so production of Hamlet at the Old Vic, soon joined in the repertoire by highly successful productions of Shaw's Saint Joan and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. The latter was directed by Laurence Olivier, who had been wisely half-launching the whole operation over the previous two summers at the new Chichester Festival Theatre.

The statue of Laurence Olivier outside the National Theatre
There's a very interesting and fairly modest roster of celebrations planned on the South Bank in October, but The Times jumped the gun on Saturday with a fascinating digest of artistic directors' reminiscences topped off, alas, with an editorial leader citing the English language premiere of Waiting for Godot as evidence that the National "has never been shy of difficult work" (Godot had been staged in 1955 at the Arts Theatre by Peter Hall).

Olivier (1963-1973) was quoted as telling Kenneth Tynan that he wanted to make an audience watch an actor as keenly as they might watch a footballer or a boxer, and he wanted actors who were versatile, enthusiastic and, above all, physically strong. Peter Hall (1973-1988), who opened the new premises in 1976, singled out happy memories of the Antony and Cleopatra of Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench, and Peter Shaffer's "very hard" Amadeus, while Richard Eyre (1988-1997), Hall's successor, selected Ian Holm's King Lear and Ian McKellen's Richard III as his highlights - and, of course, quite rightly, all the David Hare plays.

Trevor Nunn (1997-2003), a little defensively, says that he never applied for the job; it's generally assumed that his was a holding operation as neither Sam Mendes nor Stephen Daldry wanted the job (my information and instinct remains that Daldry is ready for it now), and he's wonderfully generous about what Nicholas Hytner (2003 -) - who idolises him as a role model - has achieved.

Hytner says that Nick Starr has done more of his job on the money side than any previous executive director and clarifies the character of the place with a chilling succinctness: "There's no manifesto, just an aspiration to do half old, half new. And an instinct I test at every planning meeting: trying to get an exciting balance. We are very much not a European arts theatre in the image of a single strong director."

There are two BBC TV programmes in the pipeline, as well as some NT Live encore screenings, platform debates and exhibitions. And the NT's new red temporary Shed hosts some lunchtime discussions on theatre sound and design, gender parity, venues, education and even theatre criticism ("from broadsheet to blog" on 18 October; hope I'm invited!).

So, many ghosts will be walking abroad by the Thames, just as they are, apparently, around the Royal Shakespeare Theatre by the Avon in Warwickshire. The RSC - which was regarded as a jumped up intruder when launched by Peter Hall in 1960, and a diversionary threat to the longer-planned National - has announced a series of ghost-hunting sessions for the public on certain Friday and Saturday nights over the next couple of months, inspired by some unexplained sightings after dark.

A Perfumed Lady has been wafting around the upper circle in the RST and a grey-garbed dame goes around the Swan turning on lights after the stage staff have switched them off, so they say. These guided creepy tours of the dark theatres with their dark ladies of the bonnets are scheduled for 11pm at night, when the whole of Stratford is a ghost town anyway.

I'd be more interested to hear of any manifestation of one of the greatest voices ever heard on the stage, that of Ian Richardson, whose ashes are buried in the foundations of the new theatre. Now, that really would be something.

Or perhaps we might have an alternative answer to the famous photograph in the Dirty Duck over the road which, with speech bubbles, has Roy Dotrice asking David Warner where everyone's gone as they sup pints on the stoop outside: "I think they've gone home for breakfast," says Warner. Perhaps not. Perhaps they've evaporated into thin, thin air and will come back to shiver your timbers as you sign up for the RSC's "Hunt the Haunting," slightly desperate-sounding publicity wheeze. Bring Up the Bodies!