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
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
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.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders