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Making joy daily bread

by
16 May 2014

Rachel Boulding finds a spiritual thread in the history of the National Theatre

Ivan Kyncl

Stagecraft on the South Bank: Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra in the National Theatre production His Dark Materials, 2003. From the book under review

Stagecraft on the South Bank: Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra in the National Theatre production His Dark Materials, 2003. From the book under review

The National Theatre Story
Daniel Rosenthal
Oberon Books £35
(978-1-84002-768-6)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code CT381 )

AT ABOUT the size of two bricks, this substantial volume has been nearly ten years in the making, and runs to so many pages that the numbering stops at 846, before 64 more pages of listings, which doesn't include 80 more of notes (available only online, inconveniently). Perhaps the author should join the Rt Revd Professor Tom Wright (whose recent offering on St Paul weighs in at 1680 pages) in a support group.

Although not strictly an official history of the Royal National Theatre, this is as thorough a telling as the story is likely to get, and the freelance journalist and lecturer Daniel Rosenthal was granted privileged access to archives, personnel, and other material.

He traces a narrative from the early campaigns in the mid-19th century for a "House for Shakespeare" right up to the announcement in October 2013 of Rufus Norris as the new Director. This meant that the book managed to miss the theatre's 50th anniversary that month, but the compensations are significant.

The story of the company, first at the Old Vic from 1963 and on the South Bank from 1976, may now be familiar from exhibitions at the theatre itself, its own televised gala anniversary show, and a two-part BBC Arena documentary (of which Rosenthal was associate producer), as well as countless other reminiscences from the stars in print and on screen. But the author brings more than just extra detail. His fluent style navigates what might otherwise be a discombobulating maze of committees and lobbyists, picking out the personalities and crucial decisions en route.

Inevitably, it is a tale of setbacks and serendipity. The foundation stone was laid in 1951, dedicated by Archbishop Fisher, and accompanied by a poem by John Masefield, Poet Laureate, urging ("Pray, therefore, brothers . . .") "vision for the blind, Making joy daily bread and beauty known". But the stone was later moved, more than once.

The competition to be the architect of the theatre complex was won by Denys Lasdun, who bid for it by saying: "I imagine the supremely vital element in such a building to be the spiritual content of it." As the Director of the organisation at the time, Laurence Olivier - a clergy son, of course - remarked: "Of course we all fell like a hod of bricks for that one."

The selection-committee secretary remarked that the choice of Lasdun was "an incredible result, and I can only regard it as a direct intervention of Providence." But bricks were specifically banned (as Rosenthal notes ruefully, "when it might have been brick-faced at comparable cost"), and the structure was formed in concrete.

The heart of the book, rightly, is a large number of short chapters outlining the productions deemed to be the most important. So, for example, with Racing Demon (1990), he sketches the background to the writing, plot, and cast, with comments about the critical and audience response.

Of The Mysteries, Tony Harrison's three-part version of Mystery plays, staged in the 1980s, the playwright says to those who found them profound: "But I didn't want them to have a religious experience, necessarily, I wanted them to have a theatrical experience."

This is a constant theme: the reflection of big national questions (God, health, race, for example) in terms of drama. Easy to dip into and fluently told, as a work of reference, this meaty volume is indispensable for all interested in British theatre.

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