A season of the greats at the National Theatre

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The Independent Culture

They may have been writing for four decades or more, but the current generation of major English playwrights are producing their best work now, according to Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre.

Four new plays by David Hare, Michael Frayn, Tony Harrison and Howard Brenton will be staged at the National, on London's South Bank, over the coming year. Revivals will also be staged of Harold Pinter's A Slight Ache, with Simon Russell Beale, and of Tom Stoppard and André Previn's Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour.

Jeremy Irons will make his National debut in Never So Good, Brenton's new play about the late Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, in which Ian MacNeice will play Winston Churchill. Howard Davies will direct the production, which opens in March.

Hytner said the National had commissioned the play from Brenton following his 2005 play, Paul – a non-believer's account of the life and faith of the Christian evangelist St Paul. The theatre chief described Brenton's latest production as: "A play about democratic politics. It explains what kind of compromises are required from those who reach the top in politics; both personal and political compromises."

Harrison's new play, Fram, about the Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, will open in April, directed by Harrison himself and Bob Crowley, and starring Sian Thomas and Jasper Britton.

In his latest work, Afterlife, which opens in June, directed by Michael Blakemore, Frayn explores the life of the Austrian impresario and founder of the Salzburg Festival, Max Reinhardt.

Details of Hare's new play, which opens in early 2009, are being kept under wraps, but the title has been revealed – Gethsemane. Hare is also directing Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking, a play by the American writer Joan Didion based on a memoir by her, which opens in April.

Mr Hytner said: "British theatre is as confident as it has ever been. At the same time as young writers want to write for the theatre, writers who have been writing for 40 or 50 years are producing some of their greatest work. It's remarkable."

The National is also staging eight new plays by the successors to the Hare/Pinter generation, including a production by Katie Mitchell based on Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and the Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters. This is about miners of the Woodhorn Colliery, who in the 1930s invited Robert Lyon to give them art-appreciation lectures and took up painting, briefly winning acclaim from the art world.

There will also be a strong classical offering at the National in 2008, including Ralph Fiennes in the title role of Oedipus by Sophocles in a version by Frank McGuinness.

The National chief had strong words for the Arts Council over the 194 theatres and arts companies facing funding cuts. "The current situation is a terrible mess," said Hytner. He has lobbied the council on behalf of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, where he began his career, the Bush Theatre and the National Student Drama Festival.