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National Theatre anniversary: A spooky but splendid evening with 50 years of theatre’s best

From Laurence Olivier to Adrian Lester, Frank Finlay to Rory Kinnear, Maggie Smith to... Maggie Smith: this was a fitting tribute to Britain’s centre stage

Anniversary celebrations can be self-indulgent, long-winded affairs, but the National Theatre’s 50th birthday bash – broadcast live from the Olivier on BBC2 on Saturday night – was a marvel of gracefulness, pace and profound yet humorous and lightly-worn pride in a half century of extraordinary achievement. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, the evening was also a logistical triumph, a seamless flow of rare archive footage, succinct contextualising comment and excerpts from thirty-odd of the theatre’s greatest hits performed live by a company of 99 actors.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the occasion and I have to report that the hairs on the back of my neck got a great deal of exercise.  A handful of the actors had been in Laurence Olivier’s original company in 1963 and there was a stirring interplay, at times, between the past and the present-tense of the show. We watched old footage of Maggie Smith as the vampish Myra Arundel in Noel Coward’s 1964 production of Hay Fever. The screen lifted and there she was on stage to deliver a wonderfully poised and wry rendition of Mrs Sullen’s couplets about wedlock from The Beaux’ Stratagem. The passion of youth and the authority of age fused thrillingly when Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow – filmed in the Old Vic, the company’s first home – re-channelled the ardent spirit of Shaw’s St Joan in her speech of ringing rebuke to her interrogators.

The most shiver-inducing of all such moments came in the penultimate item which saw Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear recreate the scene from Hytner’s recent modern-dress Othello, where Iago poisons the hero’s mind with suspicions about the handkerchief. With uncanny effect, their performance briefly gave way to a sound recording made in January 1965 of Olivier and Frank Finlay in the same sequence – a touch which managed both to suggest the completion of a circle and to intimate the distance we have travelled in the last 50 years. The evocation of the theatre’s great revivals – Judi Dench’s Cleopatra aglow, Simon Russell Beale’s haunting,  delicate Hamlet – was exemplary. The bulk of the evening was a celebration of the astonishing variety of new work the National has produced – ranging in this programme from Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) with Benedict Cumberbatch, to London Road (2011), the ground-breaking verbatim musical about an Ipswich community trying to heal itself after a spate of murders.

It was embarrassing that Alecky Blythe, who did the book for that show, was the only female writer represented. I think that I would have traded one of the three extracts from David Hare (though not the Pravda scenes with Ralph Fiennes having a ball as the rapacious, Murdoch-based entrepreneur, Lambert Le Roux) for a gobbet, say, of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin. Nonetheless, the evening was crammed with pleasure and stimulation. Sometimes, this was the joy of discovery – Peter Nichols’ balefully funny National Health (1969), where an underfunded NHS hospital, becomes a metaphor for a nation in decline, looks ripe for revival.

Sometimes it was re-encountering the familiar with a mischievous twist – after the sad loss of Richard Griffiths, Alan Bennett himself conducted the riotous French conversation class as the maverick Hector in The History Boys.

Laurence Oliver, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner – it’s a proud tradition.

And Hytner has brought on, in Rufus Norris, a fearless and visionary director to succeed him in 2015.

Here’s to the next 50 years.