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

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen