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The National Theatre Story, By Daniel Rosenthal

A definitive compendium on the revered institution that is the National Theatre

There's a substantial bibliography forming round the National Theatre, 50 years old this year, including the memoirs of its first three directors – Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall and Richard Eyre – and Michael Blakemore's recent Stage Blood, covering just five years of his time with Olivier and disillusion with Hall.

But this weighty tome is the definitive history, synthesising many of the previous works, incorporating extensive new interview material with privileged access to directors' files, administrative records, board papers and the restricted holdings in the NT archive.

That sounds like – and, on first picking up the book with the aid of a fork- lift truck, resembles – Edward Casaubon's obviously unreadable "The Key to All Mythologies" in Middlemarch, an unappetising accumulation of footnotes (so many, flecking each page, like hailstones, that they are not even included in the printed text; go on line, dudes, like everyone else) and bland scholarship.

Rosenthal never lets rip with opinion, alas and hooray, I suppose, apart from getting a little bit excited over London Road, the "verbatim musical" by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork. That show, about the Ipswich prostitute murders, probably sealed director Rufus Norris's appointment as sixth artistic director in succession to the incumbent since 2003, Nicholas Hytner.

But this is a story with guts, great actors, laughter, disaster, and other properties that most books don't possess. It's the story of a campaign, a process, a fulfilment; of a triumph of the national character despite itself, of a celebration and a realisation of what we, as a nation, simply do better, probably thanks to Shakespeare, than anyone else: the theatre.

And Rosenthal does, actually, knit it all together, encompassing Olivier and Paul Scofield as well as David Hare and Howard Brenton. There are sections within chapters, edgy snippets of dialogue within chapters, and an even, non-judgmental intelligence behind. It's all too much, probably, but somebody had to do this. Did you want to know why principles of sponsorship became unaffordable luxuries? Or why Daniel Day-Lewis freaked out playing Hamlet? Or why Mary Whitehouse lost her ludicrous private prosecution against a play (which she hadn't seen)? Or why Eyre fell out so badly with an esteemed colleague, Peter Gill? Or why Lloyd Dorfman, chairman of Travelex, gave £10m towards the £78m cost of the NT future development scheme?

It's all here, summarised better than anywhere else, along with analytical stories about key productions, from Olivier's Othello and Alan Ayckbourn's Way Upstream to Bill Bryden's "hairy-arsed, semi-alcoholic" troupe in The Mysteries, to War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors. And there's another, story, too: how the National finally eclipsed the Royal Shakespeare Company which Hall had ironically founded in order to steal its thunder; well, partly… theatre constantly evolves.

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