For younger generations, well-used to seeing shows on one of the National Theatre’s stages on London’s South Bank, it’s easy to take the building and the state-funded theatre for granted. Yet there is a long and arduous history of the National Theatre, from its original inception, to the opening of its new premises in the late 1970s, to the continuing efforts to balance artistic vision with value for money and popular appeal.
Daniel Rosenthal has examined the entire dramatic history of the National Theatre, both as an idea and as a reality, and condensed it into a remarkably thorough and accessible tome.
The National Theatre Story is a laudable work of scholarship and research. Don’t let that put you off. If you have a keen interest in theatre history, then you’ll find much to enjoy within these pages. Rosenthal’s prose avoids the dryness inherent in many academic works. He ably captures the drama, the conflicts, the big personalities and the highs and lows of a modern British institution.
Personalities don’t come much bigger than Laurence Olivier’s. Although Rosenthal begins his account with a potted history of the aborted attempts to bring about a National Theatre in Britain, it’s not until Lord Larry comes on board at the turn of the 1960s that the story gains a protagonist that even casual readers will enjoy. Both as the man who became the first artistic director of the NT, treading on the toes of the RSC and failing to woo Peter Hall to be his number two (the man who would later take over…); as well as an actor who was lauded for his performance as Othello despite his chronic stage-fright, Olivier leaps off the pages as a fascinating character, and it’s hardly any wonder that multiple biographies have been written about him.
Many of the interviews featured in the book are new, where possible of course, owing to the deaths of many major players in the intervening years. Rosenthal remains objective about the relative merits and demerits of all four artistic directors, pointing to the great commercial success of the current Nicholas Hytner era.
Over such a lengthy book (more than eight hundred pages) that covers a wide range of topics, naturally different sections will appeal more to some than others. The selection process for architects of the venue on the South Bank, and the controversy surrounding the eventual winner and structure, may be of minimal interest to readers looking to learn more about specific productions. Also, for such a thick volume, Rosenthal skims over some aspects, such as Equity’s involvement in ensuring open and transparent casting as Olivier assembled his first NT Company. Instead, the prose leaps to the troubled production of Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet. The early years of the 60s to mid-70s, when the NT Company was based in the Old Vic in Waterloo is surprisingly terse. Perhaps understandably, given the wealth of research material since the advent of the internet, the final sections on the stewardship of Nicholas Hytner feel more thorough. Some concessions have to be made to length, and the copious footnotes (which would doubtless have added hundreds more pages) occupy no space within the printed book: not a problem for lay readers but students will have to go online to find the references.
The National Theatre Story is an intelligently-written and engaging work. It’s best enjoyed as bedtime reading owing to the difficulty in readily transporting such a hefty hardback tome, but the length is justifiable. Rosenthal pushes no agenda, but he raises the question of the value of having a taxpayer-funded theatre, as well as stimulates the debate on what the NT ought to aspire to be. Often maligned, sometimes brilliant, the National Theatre’s history is anything but dull, and Rosenthal book will is the definitive biography of the institution’s early years.
We rate it five stars because despite a few reservations The National Theatre Story is likely to come to be seen as an essential resource on theatre history.