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.

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album