The ghost at the feast as National Theatre turns 50: Peter O’Toole was there at the very start, but shuns celebrations

The actor who played Hamlet in the National Theatre’s first  production 50 years ago is staying away from the anniversary celebrations

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The stars of the British stage will gather at a glitzy gala to celebrate 50 years of the National Theatre next month. Yet as the great actors return to briefly reprise some of their best-loved roles, one significant name will be missing: Peter O’Toole, the man who took the lead in the National’s first production.

By playing Hamlet under the eye of founder director Sir Laurence Olivier, O’Toole – who in 1963 was a dazzling new presence both in film and on stage – secured one of the most significant places in the National’s history.

Tomorrow marks  exactly 50 years on from the first night of O’Toole’s Hamlet – and by all rights he should be among stars including Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith, all of whom will perform speeches from roles they have taken there in a celebratory gala performance on 2 November.

Memories of his grand part in helping to establish one of the country’s most important cultural institutions will not be rekindled by the man himself, however, who has declined the invitation after giving up acting altogether last year. One source close to the actor said: “He won’t be involved. He’s completely retired.” The National confirmed that the 81-year-old actor was invited, with a spokeswoman adding: “Sadly, he was unavailable, and of course we are really sorry he will not be there.”

Other actors in the inaugural production included Derek Jacobi as Laertes and Rosemary Harris as Ophelia. Gambon himself played a spear carrier and described O’Toole as “a god with bright blond hair”.

Daniel Rosenthal, author of The National Theatre Story, which is due out next month, said: “Olivier thought Hamlet was a good choice for the first production of the National Theatre Company because the movement started as a ‘house for Shakespeare’.” O’Toole had played Hamlet before and was keen to reprise the role coming the year after the film Lawrence of Arabia had made him an international star. Yet he still told interviewers that he was “sick with nerves”.

While the opening night on 22 October 1963, held at the National’s temporary home of the Old Vic, was not a Royal gala, “there were lots of grandees, celebrities and politicians invited,” Mr Rosenthal said.

Unfortunately, “the critics were not hugely impressed,” the theatre historian said. While it sold out the run, the newspaper response was lukewarm. “The famous quote was Bernard Levin’s review in the Daily Mail: ‘After a wait of 100 years this will do for a start’.” RB Marriott writing in The Stage described O’Toole as a “magnificent prince” but others were not so convinced.

One critic thought it was “hard to think of a young actor less able to imply impotence than O’Toole”, and another said the star’s “virile and pulsating performance left the reviewer bewildered about the true purpose of all the sound and fury”. O’Toole was not an official member of the inaugural National Theatre company. “He was the star, playing Hamlet, and after the run he left to make a film,” Mr Rosenthal said. His stage career suffered in 1980 when he gave a widely criticised performance at the Old Vic of Macbeth, but a decade later he was acclaimed in the title role in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, playing the louche columnist.

The actor, who received eight Oscar nominations but never won one, said his career had brought him “public support, emotional fulfilment and material comfort” and had brought him together with fine people “with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits”.

Despite O’Toole’s absence at the National gala, dubbed 50 Years On Stage, the institution’s departing director Sir Nicholas Hytner said recently that the show would be bigger than originally billed.

The event, which will be live on BBC 2, will re-stage highlights from some of the most significant productions from the National’s 50 years.

Hamlet will be performed as part of the two-hour show, but it will be spoken by Russell Beale, while Gambon and Jacobi will take roles from Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. Dame Judi is to perform an elegy from when she starred in Antony and Cleopatra in 1987. Dame Maggie will perform from her role as Mrs Sullen in The Beaux’ Stratagem.

To mark Tuesday’s anniversary the Queen is to visit. She will tour the building, watch rehearsals and be shown some of the workshops.

The National has produced well over 700 plays. It stayed at the Old Vic for the first 13 years, before moving to the current venue on the South Bank. The building was opened by the Queen in 1976.  It is undergoing a transformation as part of an £80m overhaul dubbed NT Future.

While O’Toole does not feel able to attend, the institution is in rude health after a decade under the stewardship of Sir Nicholas Hytner. The National revealed last week that when he departs in April 2015, his successor would be acclaimed director Rufus Norris.