It’s the National Theatre’s 50th birthday this year, and I was lucky enough to be chosen in the ballot to get a £50 ticket for the 50 Years On Stage dress rehearsal. This was on Friday 1 November, the day before the celebratory show went out live on BBC2.
It was a wonderful experience, definitely one of the highlights of my year. The atmosphere in the Olivier was buzzing and everyone was full of anticipation. Current Director Nicholas Hytner gave us an introductory speech amid loud applause, before the cameras started rolling – everything had to be timed to the second, in preparation for the live broadcast.
We were treated to a mix of live performances and archival footage – cleverly arranged so that set changes could take place while our attention was focused on the screen. The clips were arranged in roughly chronological order: the show began with the first scene of Hamlet, the first production to be staged by the National Theatre during their time at the Old Vic. It opened with an audio recording from the archives of the first line ever spoken – sending chills down my spine – and continued with a live performance from a modern day cast, including Anna Maxwell Martin and Adrian Lester – with none other than Derek Jacobi as the Ghost.
It would be impossible to pick just one highlight from the evening. Joan Plowright, delivering a speech from Shaw’s Saint Joan recorded on stage at the Old Vic, was incredible. Maggie Smith was fantastic both in Coward’s Hay Fever – recorded in 1963 – and in her live delivery of a speech from The Beaux’ Stratagem. I loved Judi Dench’s speech from Antony and Cleopatra, and was pleasantly surprised by her singing of ‘Send In the Clowns’ from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Her singing voice isn’t traditionally powerful, but it is expressive and moving, and even though my only prior knowledge of this song comes from Krusty the Clown’s rendition in The Simpsons, Dench succeeded in making me forget this (which is just as well!). I’m a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, and seeing him in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead alongside Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was a real treat, especially as I missed out on the chance to see him on stage in Frankenstein.
The scenes from more recent productions were brilliant too, and really showed just how consistent the National has been over the last fifty years in producing fantastic shows. I loved the excerpt from Jerry Springer: The Opera, which made me wish once again that I’d been able to see it the first time around. Seeing Simon Russell Beale perform a speech from Hamlet was a great opportunity, and made me look forward even more to his King Lear next year, while the scene from War Horse was just beautiful.
The evening closed with more Shakespeare: Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear performed a scene from the fantastic recent production of Othello. Of course, there were omissions: it wouldn’t have been possible to fit absolutely everything in to a two and a half hour show, although I would really have liked to see something of His Dark Materials. What WAS there, though, was so fantastic and varied and brilliant that I certainly can’t complain. There wasn’t a dull moment all evening.
I hadn’t even heard of the National Theatre a few years ago, despite being really interested in theatre. Since I learned of its existence, however, I’ve attended tons of performances, not all of which have been brilliant, but all of which have been daring and challenging. It’s an asset to the world of the theatre and I don’t know what I would do without it. I feel so lucky to have been able to have witnessed this celebratory production live.
Here’s to the next fifty years!