Everything you always wanted to know about the National Theatre (but were afraid to ask)…

As the National Theatre turns 50, we ask its finest minds some very stupid questions

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© Philip Vile


Exactly 50 years ago today, Britain’s flagship theatre began life with a production of ‘Hamlet’ directed by its legendary founder Laurence Olivier. That calls for a party, and on November 2 there’ll be a proper knees up with ‘NT: 50 Years on Stage’, a star-studded live performance of a selection of the theatre’s ‘greatest hits’ that’ll be broadcast on BBC2. That’s a helluva lot of history to cover – so for your delectation (and ours) we asked a panel of experts who work in and around the NT to get you up to speed on what, precisely, this ‘National Theatre’ thing is all about.

Why does nobody ever call it the Royal National Theatre? Do you all hate Her Majesty?
Lyn Haill, head of print and publications ‘The NT was granted the Royal patent in 1988 to mark its twenty-fifth birthday; but having been “NT” or just “The National” for so long before that, that’s how most people continued to refer to us.’

Why did Mary Whitehouse try to sue you in the ’80s?
Sebastian Born, literary director ‘Howard Brenton’s 1980 play “The Romans in Britain” juxtaposed the Roman invasion of Britain with the British Army’s presence in Northern Ireland and featured a short scene of male rape. Mary Whitehouse (who hadn’t seen the play) brought a private prosecution against its director, Michael Bogdanov, for “having procured an act of gross indecency”, bizarrely claiming there was no difference between a simulated act and a real one. The case collapsed at the trial when it emerged her solicitor had sat in the back of the circle and couldn’t swear to what he’d actually seen.’

War Horse

War Horse © Simon Annand


NT founder Laurence Olivier was a superstar actor – why have all his successors just been directors?
Lyn Haill ‘Olivier can be seen as the last of the great “actor-managers” stretching back to Kean, Garrick and Henry Irving; his glamorous status and worldwide reputation was ideal for establishing the NT company at the Old Vic. Since then, the leaders of this three-auditorium flagship for British theatre have all been great directors – it’s always been led by a creative figure.’

It took 25 years to build the National Theatre’s South Bank home – why?
Gavin Clarke, archivist ‘Parliament passed the National Theatre Bill in 1949 but there were years of dithering over the best site; the Queen Mother laid the first foundation stone in 1951 next to the Festival Hall but it kept moving (she apparently joked it should have been put on castors). It was decided in July 1962 that the Old Vic Theatre was to become the temporary home of the National Theatre company; work on the actual site began in 1969 but it wasn’t opened until 1976.’

What is the National Theatre’s most successful show?
Chris Harper, producer ‘In terms of audience numbers, it has to be “War Horse”. First produced in the Olivier Theatre in 2007, it has been seen by four million people worldwide. On Tuesday 22 October, the NT’s anniversary, “War Horse” will be playing not only in London but also in Birmingham, Ohio and Berlin.’

What is the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong during a production?
Eric Lumsden, head of stage management ‘Alan Ayckbourn’s “Way Upstream” is set on a river cruiser and for its 1982 NT production, a giant water tank was built into the Lyttelton stage to float the boat. Unfortunately it sprang a leak, causing floods, technical hitches, a seasick company and crew and several cancelled performances. The Daily Mail theatre critic Jack Tinker arrived to review the show wearing Wellington boots.’

Rob Greig / Time Out


Is your building really a modernist classic, or just scary and bleak?
Paul Jozefowski, NT Future Project manager ‘Denys Lasdun’s 1970s building is the pre-eminent example in Britain of mid-twentieth century modernism; the style is known as “Brutalist” – not (ahem) descriptive, but from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”. Our NT Future redevelopment will make it much more open and welcoming. Time Out called it “one of the seven wonders of London” and we agree!’

The National Theatre makes truck loads of money – why does it still get public subsidy? What would actually happen if it lost it?
Lisa Burger, chief operating officer ‘Seat prices would go up; our repertoire would shrink (less adventurous plays, smaller cast sizes), and the work we do offstage, for example through our learning department, would be under severe threat. Public investment allows us to take creative risks: take “War Horse”; it started with a series of experimental workshops and nobody could have foreseen it would become a global success.’

What happened to the robot polar bear from the show ‘Greenland’?

Liz Murray, NT hire department ‘Ask Greenpeace! We sold them the polar bear after “Greenland” finished since it was too large to fit in among the thousands of props in our hire department. Like our 85,000 costumes, the props are available for anyone to hire and are constantly recycled into new plays at the NT too. Popular props include Sweeney Todd’s barber chair and the restraining chair from “The Madness of George III”.’

The National Theatre's greatest hits: in pictures

Our city's riverside theatre emporium has played host to plenty of historical stage moments over the course of its 50-year career. We take a look back through the programmes and cast lists of the National Theatre's history.
See the gallery



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