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.
SHAKESPEARE AT THE NATIONAL THEATRE
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.
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).
'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)
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.
‘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.’
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).
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 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.’
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.’
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.
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!’
‘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
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.’
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.’
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’.
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.
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.
'...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
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.
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.