1967 - 2012

Shakespeare at the National Theatre

National Theatre

“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of ranged empire fall. Here is my space.”
Act one, scene one, Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

This exhibit, curated by theatre historian Daniel Rosenthal, tells the story of Shakespeare at the National Theatre through eight landmark productions. 

It illuminates the work of the  directors and the experiences of actors and audiences using  photographs, letters, design sketches, reviews and interviews.

A film reflecting on the range of Shakespeare productions at the National Theatre since 1963; featuring Daniel Rosenthal.


The National Theatre Company was launched in 1963 when Laurence Olivier directed Hamlet at the Old Vic, starring Peter O'Toole in the title role.

The new NT Company found itself in competition with the Royal Shakespeare Company, led by Peter Hall, which was producing half-a-dozen or more Shakespeares each year in Stratford-upon-Avon, London and on tour. 

It wasn't prudent, artistically or commercially, for the National Theatre to devote a third of its programme to Shakespeare, as was originally intended, although Shakespeare accounted for 11 out of the 72 productions during Olivier’s decade-long tenure as artistic director.

Peter Hall became the artistic director in November 1973 and chose to direct The Tempest, with John Gielgud as Prospero, as his first production.

The move into Lasdun’s new building in 1976 liberated the NT Company whose work had been confined within the proscenium arch of the Old Vic.

The Lyttelton became the home for Shakespeare productions conceived to tour to (mostly proscenium-arch) venues around the UK and overseas.

The Cottesloe offered extraordinary intimacy and it is no coincidence that Nunn’s revival of The Merchant of Venice (1999) was the third NT Shakespeare to be filmed after starting life in the studio theatre,  gave Cottesloe audiences a ‘close-up’, televisual, experience of the text.

The Olivier, an auditorium with an open, fan-shaped stage inspired by the Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus lent itself to Shakespeare’s large casts, the ‘alarums and excursions’ of battle scenes, to political rhetoric, and the direct audience address of soliloquy. 

Peter Hall and his successors – Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner – have, for the most part, kept Shakespeare in the Olivier, the largest theatre, as an essential part of the National’s obligation to present classics to the widest possible audience.

Poster for As You Like It, 1967

More than any other Shakespeare revival of the National Theatre's first decade, the 1967 As You Like It was an experimental production of its times. 

The play was to have been directed by John Dexter, who planned an all-male production with Ronald Pickup as Rosalind, but he withdrew, insisting he couldn't assemble a satisfactory cast in the time available. He was replaced by Clifford Williams who directed Pickup (Rosalind), Charles Kay (Celia), Richard Kay (Phebe) and Anthony Hopkins (Audrey), alongside Derek Jacobi (Touchstone).

Ronald Pickup as Rosalind in As You Like It, 1967
Ronald Pickup recalls As You Like It.

'In the love scenes in the Forest of Arden, the theatrical form and the theme completely... penetrate each other on condition... that female parts are played, as ... on the Elizabethan stage, by boys.' (Jan Kott - In the love scenes in the Forest of Arden from Shakespeare's Bitter Arcadia)

‘I have found much illumination in Bitter Arcadia,  but this production is not designed to demonstrate specific ideas advanced in that essay… The examination of the infinite beauty of Man in love – which lies at the very heart of As You Like It – takes place in an atmosphere of spiritual purity which transcends sensuality in the search for poetic sexuality. It is for this reason that I employ an all-male cast.’ (Clifford Williams - Programme As You Like It)

Rehearsal image from As You Like It, 1967
Derek Jacobi (pictured right, with Anthony Hopkins as Audrey), recalls playing Touchstone in As You Like It.
Mark Wilkinson’s arrangement of Under the Greenwood Tree (sung by Roderick Horn as Amiens) – one of the songs from the Forest of Arden scenes of As You Like It.
This first-night telegram to the all-male cast of As You Like It came from Danny La Rue, then England’s best-known female impersonator. Journalist Kenneth Pearson, who had observed the production in rehearsal, for a Sunday Times preview feature headlined ‘The man who played Rosalind’, also sent opening-night greetings: ‘It must be a hit – there isn’t a Miss in it.’
Ronald Pickup (Rosalind), left with Charles Kay (Celia) and Jeremy Brett (Orlando). The Guardian critic Philip Hope-Wallace thought the love scenes between Rosalind and Orlando suffered from being played man-to-man ('If not embarrassing, they were somehow less effective'); for Milton Shulman in the Evening Standard, they lacked the necessary 'sense of romantic ecstasy'. Nevertheless, the production was a hit, giving 77, sold-out performances.
Poster for Measure For Measure, 1981

In the integration of African-Caribbean and Asian actors into the casts of classic revivals at the National Theatre, Michael Rudman's Measure For Measure, for the Lyttelton in April 1981, holds an important place.

Rudman cast 28 African-Caribbean and Asian actors in his 31-strong company, including Norman Beaton (Angelo), Troy Foster (Claudio), Oscar James (Pompey), Stefan Kalipha (Duke) and Yvette Harris (Isabella). 

Rudman transposed Shakespeare’s Vienna to a mythical Caribbean island shortly after the Second World War. The production prompted impassioned, polarizing debate amongst actors and critics alike.

In a Measure For Measure programme note, director Michael Rudman (pictured in rehearsal), wrote: ‘I thought about [the play’s] parallels with Cuba. A very loose regime, like Batista’s is followed by the doctrinaire puritanical regime of Castro. Then I thought: Measure for Measure on a Caribbean island. A mixture of Haiti and Trinidad. Mainly West Indian, because there are a lot of very good West Indian actors. Mythical, because I don’t want too many specific political parallels.' 

‘For the first time,’ reported Time Out, ‘black actors have centre stage at the National Theatre’, while The Times noted that Afro-Asian actors’ ‘entry into the citadel of British drama is a real advance.’

Interviewed in The Guardian, black actor, Norman Beaton, argued: ‘The fact that [Measure for Measure] is set in some mythical Caribbean island means that the audience are being pandered to. I don’t think that blacks in the National Theatre is some kind of… artistic liberation. The entire relationship remains paternalistic.’

Designer Eileen Diss’ ‘banana republic’ set for Measure for Measure, draped with posters of the Duke (Stefan Kalipha)
West Indian World newspaper ran this feature on Measure for Measure in its 10-16 April edition, 1981.
Norman Beaton as Angelo, pictured with Yvette Harris (Isabella). Professor Stanley Wells, reviewing Measure for Measure on BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope arts magazine, praised Beaton’s performance as ‘a feat of classical acting of very high quality indeed’.
Irving Wardle's Measure For Measure review from The Times, 1981
Michael Coveney's Measure For Measure review from The Financial Times, 1981
Measure for Measure opened on Tuesday 14 April 1981, three days after the Brixton riot, in which tension between police and an Afro-Caribbean community convinced that beat constables were abusing their stop-and-search powers and arresting black people without good reason had erupted into violence and looting. The Lyttelton stage presented 'a carnival culture', noted Professor Tony Howard, 'and on the streets [near the NT] something very very different was happening.'
Poster for King Lear, 1986

In 1968, Kenneth Tynan, the National Theatre's Literary manager, wanted Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud to alternate as King Lear and Gloucester at the Old Vic. However, it took eighteen years before David Hare finally directed the National Theatre's first King Lear, in the Olivier, in 1986.

Correspondence stored in the National Theatre Archive reveals that David Hare had first asked the National’s Director, Peter Hall, to let him stage the play late in 1974, writing ‘I would be very angry if you let anyone else do it… It’s so much better than any other play.’

Anthony Hopkins was cast as King Lear, alongside  Michael Bryant (Gloucester), Bill Nighy (Edgar) and Anna Massey (Goneril).

Peter Hall's letter to David Hare, 14 February 1977
David Hare's letter to Peter Hall, 16 February 1977
Peter Hall's letter to David Hare, 15 June 1978, reporting a conversation with Colin Blakely about his playing King Lear for Hare at the National Theatre.
Anthony Hopkins rehearsing King Lear. In a South Bank Show documentary broadcast in December 1986, Hopkins spoke of Lear's rage, 'so volcanic and bound into some subterranean force of nature, it cracks him wide open... I have that rage.'
An interview with David Hare recollecting directing King Lear at the National Theatre
Anthony Hopkins as King Lear, dividing his kingdom.
Hopkins (Lear) and Bill Nighy (Edgar). The Spectator praised Hopkins' for a 'powerful and intense' performance. Three actors have since played Lear in NT productions: Brian Cox (Lyttelton, 1990), Ian Holm (Cottesloe, 1997) and Simon Russell Beale (Olivier, 2014).
The last item in the Hall/Hare correspondence on King Lear: Hall's opening night postcard to Hare.
Poster for Antony and Cleopatra, 1987

By 1987, Peter Hall had directed more than 40 Shakespeare productions, but had yet to tackle Antony and Cleopatra.

'I couldn't cast it... You have to find two actors who can embody what is said about [Antony and Cleopatra] in terms of charisma [and] handle some of the most difficult language in Shakespeare.' (Peter Hall)

When Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench accepted the title roles, Peter Hall finally overcame this longstanding obstacle and went on to be named Best Director at the Evening Standard Drama Awards.

Peter Hall's letter to Anthony Hopkins, praising his performance as a fearsome media mogul in Pravda, and urging him to play Shakespeare's Antony and Falstaff, 'before you are very much older.'
Alison Chitty's costume design for Antony.

Peter Hall gave himself a 12 weeks rehearsal period, twice as long as normal. 

He recalled that the extended schedule allowed designer Alison Chitty to sit in rehearsal '...sketching possible staging solutions for every scene. Then she build a [set] model and then she designed the costumes. The whole company contributed to the design.’

Alison Chitty's costume design for Cleopatra
Judi Dench, pictured during Antony and Cleopatra rehearsals, recalls Peter Hall's advice on playing the Queen of Egypt
Peter Hall, pictured (standing centre), in rehearsal for Antony and Cleopatra, recalls the production

A few hours before the press night, Peter Hall, who was nearing the end of his 15-year tenure as National Theatre Company Director, told the company: ‘I’ve never enjoyed anything more in my whole life, and I wish it wasn’t over.’

Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins in the title roles. In his Times review, Irving Wardle wrote: 'For the first time in living memory, the English stage has two actors capable of doing full justice to the roles... their detail and speed is electrifying.' After playing Lear and Antony, Hopkins gave up Shakespearean acting in the theatre. 'We got the last of Tony's stage Shakespeare,' noted Peter Hall, 'and it's very sad that he stopped.'
The front cover of Tirzah Lowen's fascinating Antony and Cleopatra rehearsal diary. Published in 1990, it followed the production from read-through to first night (see final panel of exhibition for details of this and other books covering NT Shakespeare productions).
Poster for Hamlet, 1989

Richard Eyre’s first Shakespeare production as National Theatre Company Director became a tale of three Hamlets.

The first Hamlet, Daniel Day-Lewis, walked off the Olivier stage mid-performance, and was replaced by understudy, Jeremy Northam, who was playing Laertes.

Jeremy Northam played the Prince of Denmark while Richard Eyre rehearsed with Ian Charleson. 

Ian Charleson had told Eyre he was HIV-positive before his Hamlet casting was publicly announced, and died less than two months after his final performance as Hamlet, aged 40.

Director Richard Eyre, left, in rehearsal with Daniel Day-Lewis and Judi Dench
Stage manager Ernest Hall's Hamlet show report for 5 September 1989 records Daniel Day-Lewis' unscripted exit.
Excerpt from The London Evening Standard regarding Day-Lewis's walkout

Some reporters insisted that Day-Lewis had walked off believing that David Burke was no longer Old Hamlet, but the “real” ghost of Day-Lewis’ father, Cecil Day-Lewis, dead since 1972. Richard Eyre makes clear in his published diaries, National Service, that Day-Lewis had decided three months before his impromptu exit not to stay with Hamlet through to the end of the Olivier run in November. ‘If you’re [Hamlet] you explore everything through your own experience,’ Day-Lewis told Time magazine in 2012, when asked about the night he walked off stage. ‘It’s utterly delusional to say you become some other person – you don’t. But you do get to know yourself in a different way… So yes, … it was communication with my own dead father. But I don’t remember seeing any ghosts of my father on that dreadful night!’

Judi Dench, pictured with Daniel Day-Lewis, recalls playing Gertrude to his Hamlet.
Jeremy Northam, (pictured right) as Laertes, was suddenly called on to replace Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet
Two more of Ernest Hall's Hamlet show reports note acclaim for Day-Lewis' understudy, Jeremy Northam, on 7 September 1989, and give details of what proved to be Ian Charleson's final performance, on 13 November 1989; that night, wrote Richard Eyre, Charleson had 'acted as if he knew it was the last time he'd be on stage. He stood at the curtain call like an exhausted boxer, battered by applause.'

‘I [was] asking this guy to play Hamlet, a great actor, a great friend; I can’t say to the NT: “[Ian] is seriously ill, but he’s going to play Hamlet.” You could say it was irresponsible. There was no guarantee he was going to play to the end of the contract, but it was a quixotic gesture. And because Dan had left in such bizarre circumstances, it felt consistent to take [another] risk. It was very, very disturbing because I had in effect to lie. And terribly distressing to see Ian slipping away.’

Richard Eyre, 2005

Director Richard Eyre reflects on his troubled production of Hamlet.

The Sunday Times’ drama critic, John Peter was so moved by Ian Charleson’s ‘masterful’ Hamlet, and Eyre’s obituary of the actor in The Guardian, that he persuaded his newspaper’s editor, Andrew Neill, to fund the Ian Charleson Awards, in association with the National, with a £5,000 first prize for an actor under 30 for a classical performance (defined as plays written before 1918). First presented in February 1991, the awards continue to this day, and three winners of the main prize have been chosen from NT productions: Claire Price in The Relapse (2001), Rory Kinnear in Philistines and The Man of Mode (both 2007) and Ruth Negga in Phèdre (2009). Charleson’s Hamlet, says Richard Eyre, has therefore left ‘a very good, permanent legacy.’

Richard Eyre's letter to James Adams, then Managing Editor of The Sunday Times, confirming the newspaper's sponsorship of the Ian Charleson Awards.
Poster for The Merchant of Venice, 1999

For his Cottesloe production of The Merchant of Venice, Trevor Nunn, then the National Theatre Company Director, brought the action forward to the 1930s. 

Half a century after the Holocaust, Nunn argued, it was ‘impossible for us to approach The Merchant… as anything other than the utterance of… a more prejudiced age that was somehow innocent of what the ultimate results of such prejudice might be.’ 

A 1930s setting made it clear to the audience ‘that we were looking at a time when the notion of anti-Semitic utterance and… action was becoming… part of a certain European outlook.’

Trevor Nunn, right, in rehearsal for The Merchant of Venice. he directed 'the best Merchant for many years'  (The Times). The Mail on Sunday's Georgina Brown found 'every detail' of the production 'so fresh... that you watch a play you think you know on the edge of your seat.'

Hildegard Bechtler, in an interview with Dr. Jami Rogers about her design for The Merchant of Venice, recalled: ‘The most important aspect of the 1930s came from me finding an answer to the floor. Trevor said “tiling or squares”… I looked at paintings of the 1920s and 1930s and found an abstract painting which had pattern and strong lines, which was almost like a swastika, but it had deliberate thirties patterning and it did the trick. If I divided the floor up in a certain way with dark and lines and areas and made this painting on the floor with tiling, it just felt like a real floor, but it wasn't based on any reality.’ In her traverse Cottesloe design, with Shylock’s house at the foyer end, and Portia’s Belmont mansion towards the back wall, elegantly suited Christians moved across an asymmetrically patterned stage floor: ‘cream, tan and black rectangles of varying sizes’.

This unidentified 1930s photograph inspired Hildegard Bechtler's costume for Portia's servant, Balthazar. (pictured right)
Hildegard Bechtler's costume sketch for Balthazar.
This photograph of the Cologne Artists' Carnival 1931 influenced Hildegard Bechtler's costumes for the Venetian cabaret singers, pictured right.
Hildegard Bechtler's costumes for The Merchant of Venice helped Trevor Nunn's production evoke Christopher Isherwood's Berlin.
Henry Goodman as Shylock with Gabrielle Jourdan as Jessica. After 55 sold-out performances The Merchant of Venice transferred successfully to the Olivier. Goodman won Best Actor at the Olivier Awards and the production was preserved for the BBC and home video, filmed by Trevor Nunn and co-director Chris Hunt with the original cast at Pinewood Studios in June 2000.
Poster for Henry V, 2003

Nicholas Hytner's Henry V, in the Olivier, in 2003 was the National Theatre's first production of this play. It demonstrated how Shakespeare's account of the English invasion of France in 1415 still serves as a barometer for the nation's attitudes to why and how it goes to war.

‘We had not long ago been at war in Afghanistan. It seemed likely that in the wake of 9/11 we would be marshalled by our leaders to go to war again. It obviously felt like a play that would speak very directly now.’ (Nicholas Hytner)

Hytner cast Adrian Lester in the role of Henry, making him the first black actor to play a Shakespearean monarch at the National Theatre. The Independent called Lester’s Henry ‘a pivotal moment’ for integrated casting.

On their fourth day of rehearsal, the company read newspaper reports of a British military commander's impromptu, Shakespearean rhetoric. At a camp in the Kuwaiti desert, 20 miles from the Iraq border, Colonel Tim Collins had addressed men of the Royal Irish Battle Group: 'We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. we are entering Iraq to free a people... You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest, for your deeds will follow you down history.' Columnists instantly compared Collins to Henry V delivering the St Crispin's day speech.
Designer Tim Hatley dressed Adrian Lester and his band of brothers in desert fatigues; they were trained to handle replicas of the same automatic rifles carried by British troops in Iraq.
Adrian Lester recalls playing Henry V on the Olivier stage
Poster for The Comedy of Errors, 2011

Dominic Cooke’s production of The Comedy of Errors opened in the Olivier in November 2011 featuring Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse and Michelle Terry as Luciana, and was screened via NT Live to cinemas in the UK and around the world the following March. 

78,000 people saw the 80 performances in the Olivier, and 45,000 people watched the NT Live broadcast to cinemas on just one night.

This was the National Theatre's first production of the play and both Dominic Cooke and Lenny Henry were making their National Theatre debuts.

An excerpt from Lenny Henry's documentry Finding Shakespeare

'...savvy, fast-moving modern-dress production – set in a recession-ravaged city of crumbling buildings, lippy prostitutes, mad shrinks, sinister heavies and a wandering street band who sing British pop hits in Romanian... Lenny Henry... has tremendous stage presence and combines dazed confusion and moments of furious rage with a touching sense of wonder at the end when the long divided family is finally brought together again.'

 Charles Spencer, for the Daily Telegraph

Claudie Blakely as Adriana and Michelle Terry as Luciana in The Comedy of Errors
In 2013, Michelle Terry, pictured in rehearsal for The Comedy of Errors, talked to Daniel Rosenthal about the NT Live broadcast, and her earlier experience of live-by-satellite relay from the Olivier to cinemas, as Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well in October 2009.
Photographs of designer Bunny Christie's set models illustrate her and Dominic Cooke's vision of Ephesus as a contemporary city.
Dominic Cooke's production hit a comic peak in Act IV, Scene IV, amid frantic attempts to bind the seemingly mad Antipholus of Ephesus, played by Chris Jarman, who described the ensuing chase in this email to stage manager Alison Rankin in February 2012, three months into the run.


Bedford, Kristina – Coriolanus at the National (Susquehanna University Press, Selinsgrove, 1991)

Cox, Brian – The Lear Diaries (Methuen, London, 1992). Cox’s account of appearing in King Lear and Richard III (both Lyttelton, 1990)

Croall, Jonathan – Hamlet Observed (Oberon Books/NT Publications, 2001)

Eyre, Richard – National Service – Diary of a Decade (Bloomsbury, London, 2003). Includes accounts of Eyre’s NT productions of Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth and King Lear.

Hall, Peter – Peter Hall’s Diaries (Oberon Books, London, 2000). Includes accounts of Hall’s NT productions of The Tempest, Hamlet and Macbeth

Lowen, Tirzah – Peter Hall Directs Antony and Cleopatra (Methuen, London, 1990)

Merlin, Bella – With the Rogue’s Company: Henry IV at the National Theatre (Oberon Books/NT Publications, 2005)

Rosenthal, Daniel – The National Theatre Story (Oberon Books, 2013); contains accounts of all the productions in this exhibition.

The NT archive holds records of all National Theatre productions and is open to everyone to research and explore. 



This project is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Credits: Story

Curator — Daniel Rosenthal, author of The National Theatre Story. 
Digital Producer — Maya Gabrielle
Archive Manager — Erin Lee
Archive Assistant — Georgia Butler
Film Maker — Chloe White
Film Editor — Anthony Swords
Assistant Producer — Joel Enfield
Special thanks to  — Lyn Haill, Matchlight and ITV, and featured contributors.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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