The National Theatre Story
Oberon Books £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code
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
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
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
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.