The National at 50

I’ve written this because I can’t articulate my feelings about the NT50 celebration in any kind of social media format, and because even after sleeping on it I can’t stop thinking about it.

I love the National Theatre, it’s been a focus of my research for over three years now, and it’s very much at the centre of my theatre going life. I admire the work done by those who work there and I think it is very much at the centre of British theatrical life. That said I am not blinkered, sometimes they get things wrong But isn’t that the essence of being an arts organisation, you take risks, you get it wrong sometimes. If they weren’t getting things wrong they wouldn’t be innovating, so I forgive, embrace those things. And anyway one person’s wrong in art is another person’s just right.

Of course with all celebratory performances/programmes this could have hit the wrong tone. And that worried me. That it would be filled with sycophantic pomp and not enough content. Or that the play selections would be all wrong, that the casting from such an array of British talent would somehow get muddled and wrong. But it wasn’t, it was glorious. Yes there were one or two choices I wouldn’t have made either for play, extract or casting (the Helen Mirren scene springs to mind for casting) but then I’m not Nick Hytner, I trust his reasoning. I mainly trust it because there were plenty of scenes I wouldn’t have expected, but that were glorious.

I held it together through Joan Plowright’s interview and performance (just) a little later Judi Dench made me well up with her Cleopatra. And then Richard Eyre came on screen and said the words ‘I was given a play to read, an American play that had never been performed in America’ Angels in America.

Angels in America. “My Angels” as my PhD addled brain has taken to calling them, were to be back at the National. I’d known this for a while. I’d even managed to find out the casting the day before to put me out of my misery. It had been killing me, what if after all this time they got it wrong. I could forgive any other mess that this performance made, but not this. Luckily fears were unfounded. The casting was Dominic Cooper and Andrew Scott. I breathed a sigh of relief. I then managed to guess the scene from a still photograph and my breath caught. It seemed an obvious choice now, but again I was worried. One of my favourite scenes, it always has been, and of course actually one of the most important, when Prior tells his lover Louis he has AIDS.

I actually got my friend (who is perhaps the only person who shares the same love of this play I do in quite the same way) to watch it first, to assure me it would be ok. When she came back with ‘I got chills’ I knew it was good. I still wasn’t prepared for how good. In all the analysis I’ve done, in all the performance recordings I’ve never seen it performed like that. Andrew Scott’s performance showed an anger to Prior at this point I’ve never seen pulled out and Dominic Cooper made Louis more vulnerable against that than I’ve ever seen Louis. Although I have versions of these characters cemented in my brain, these were new takes new parts of them I’ve never seen all from just one scene. This is why theatre needs to be performed, needs to be given life, and new life.I cannot describe how important it was to me to see that performance, that tiny performance in the midst of this big celebration. For a start it validated how important Angels is to the National, out of all the plays over 50 years, Angels is still important enough. It also confirmed in my mind that it is still relevant. So many people have commented how moved they were by that one scene, how important they found it. More than ever I really hope this leads to a substantial British revival, most of all I hope the National stages that revival (and well while I’m wishing I hope that revival includes Andrew Scott) Because there is still as Prior in the play would say ‘more life’ to be had in that play. And last night, even for only a few short minutes it came back to life for me.

There were so many highlights both on the stage and in the film clips dug from the archives. As someone who has spent so much time with the National’s archives over the past few years I have so much respect and admiration for the teams putting that together. The NT archive is vast and detailed (something for which I am very grateful) and the material used showed it to it’s very best. The variety of material in film clips and performed on stage also showed the National to its best too, from the classics, to the cutting edge to the pure fun of things like Guys and Dolls or One Man Two Guvnors (not my favourite NT work but an example of the variety of work they do)  all of which showed what the National has become in the last 50 years.

Other highlights included Roger Allam doing a monologue from ‘Copenhagen’ I adore this play, it hits all the right notes for this history nerd and theatre lover.  Roger Allam was the first actor I ever saw live on stage (him and Gillian Anderson to be precise in a two hander called ‘What the Night is For’) and for me Allam was theatrical love at first sight. His work has peppered my theatre life ever since accidentally at first (he is a busy actor!) and now deliberately I never miss him on stage if I can help it. To see this actor, who few outside of theatre know, but those who know theatre really respect and love, taking centre stage delivering that monologue with expert but understated precision made me say ‘this is why I love the theatre’ it also made me so pleased and proud that this actor I’ve loved was recognised as being a strong enough performer to deliver alone that brilliant speech at this event. Another actor I was really pleased to see taking centre stage was Jamie Parker alongside Ralph Fiennes in Pravada, I’ve followed Parker since his History Boys days and for me his is the definitive Henry IV/V of a generation.

I also cannot let this waffle of a blog post pass without commenting on ‘The History Boys’ of all the performances that was one of the most pitch perfect. The chemistry of the ‘boys’ (now suddenly older and making me feel my age) I shouted aloud at the sight of Alan Bennett on stage. And who else really could have replaced Richard Griffiths? Again I welled up at that, not helped I might add by my Mum who thought it useful to comment “He nearly made it didn’t he?” he did, but I think he’d have been pleased with his boys too. As he said in the play ‘Pass it on boys, pass it on.’

And talking of Bennett, the ending of the evening a self-reflective humorous but moving extract from ‘The Habit of Art’ about the National itself delivered expertly by Frances de la Tour, whose voice caught on a few notes conveying the gravity of the words under the humour. ‘Plays plays plays’ she said, and the plays really do speak for themselves there. It’s the plays and the actors, who taking their bows according to the years they performed at the NT showed just what a variety of leading talent the National has helped to produce, many of them performing on those stages long before they were household names. The National really does know plays, and actors. And in firstly making a celebration accessible not only to Britain but around the world shows it knows its audience, it knows theatre really is or should be for everyone. Finally in  giving the technical teams the final bow of those 50 years the National also showed that theatre is made by a team, that it’s more than those front of stage, and if that final mark of respect didn’t finish you off watching it you’re a stronger person than I am.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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