Reviewed by Harriet
When we think of London’s National Theatre, most of us will envisage the great concrete complex on the South Bank of the Thames, designed by Denis Lasdun and opened in 1976. With its three stages, the building has the capacity to seat audiences of up to 2500 people a night, and has undoubtedly changed the face of contemporary British theatre. I wonder, though, how many people know that the idea of a National Theatre had its origins in 1904, when Harley Granville Barker and William Archer conceived a theatre which would deliver the public from ‘the commercial manager with the wooden head before another generation of actors…goes to the devil’. These two pioneers had the support of luminaries such as Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw, but not of the government. This was not to arrive until the early 1950s, when Clement Atlee’s Labour government passed a National Theatre Bill, and it was still to be nearly ten years before Laurence Olivier agreed to ‘have a go at making the National’. Even then, though a company was formed and plays performed, it took another sixteen years for the physical building to be completed and ready for opening. As a result, the productions of Olivier’s years at the NT (1963-1973) were housed in the Old Vic Theatre in Waterloo Road. It was left to Peter Hall, who succeeded Olivier in 1963 and ran the theatre until 1988, to oversee the move. Since his departure the theatre has had four artistic directors: Richard Eyre (1988-1997), Trevor Nunn (1997-2003), Nicholas Hytner (2003-2015) and Rufus Norris, who took over in 2015 and is still there now.
Each director has had many triumphs, but also occasional disappointments and failures, and each has been responsible not only for some impressive classical revivals but also for numerous new plays, performed by most of the country’s finest actors. All this activity – planning, commissioning, rehearsing, performing – has naturally given rise to vast quantities of correspondence. The editor of this volume, Daniel Rosenthal, has whittled down to 800 a total of more than 12,000 items that he has unearthed from archives in universities and theatres and from the personal correspondence of the people featured in the book. The result is a fascinating and immersive read, which provides an impressive and educational perspective on the day to day running of a huge and complex organisation, and of the thoughts and feelings of directors, playwrights, actors and audiences.
One thing that emerges clearly is the amount of planning involved. With three stages to fill all year round – twenty or more new productions each year – this is a major operation, and directors are frequently discussing new plays or productions several years before they actually see the light of day. Sometimes major changes need to be made, and sometimes a commission doesn’t come to fruition. Playwrights are sometimes disappointed by lack of directorial enthusiasm, or sometimes frustrated when an idea stubbornly refuses to take form. Then of course there’s the problem of casting, with leading actors proving hard to pin down, either through unwillingness to commit to potentially long runs or, having agreed, finding themselves unable to turn down lucrative film work.
This may all sound a bit heavy duty, but I assure you it is the complete opposite. I raced through the book, loving every minute. Above all, the whole thing is immensely human. This is private correspondence and the writers have no hesitation in revealing their thoughts and feelings. There are many moments of euphoria, both from audience members to actors (‘I don’t have to tell you how extraordinary your performance is…I can only say that I was as amazed and appalled and delighted as everyone else’ (Michael Frayn to Ian McKellan)) and from actors to playwrights (‘I’m loving it Richard, every single night. The only time it isn’t fun is five minutes before and twenty minutes after’ (James Corden to Richard Bean’)). There are begging letters, like the tongue in cheek one from Judi Dench to David Hare: ‘Can’t you write me a musical so that I can sit in a chair in a fur hat and nothing else and sing RUDE songs?’, and failed requests from actors at early stages in their careers such as Eileen Atkins and Lynn Redgrave, both pleading to be able to play parts which in the event went to somebody else. There’s a heartbroken letter from Maggie Smith to Laurence Olivier, written in 1968 when he failed to cast her as Millimant in The Way of the World:
What on earth do you expect me to say?
I am absolutely heartbroken by your decision but what can I do? You must know that I have now no chance to play the one part you have always told me I should….
Well, what is the point of trying to tell you my feelings. They obviously count for very little.
It was nice of you to say you will devote your energies to my return but really I do not think it would be wise of me to believe that either –
Another painful exchange is that between Peter Hall and his close friend Peter Shaffer, whose play Amadeus Hall had directed to enormous acclaim. In 1981, the film rights were acquired, and Hall expected to be asked to direct. However, he learned from the newspapers that Miloš Forman had been contracted instead. Hall’s feelings were desperately hurt, largely because Shaffer had not told him in person – ‘it is appalling treatment’ – and in part because he believed that Shaffer thought he was not up to the job: ‘No, you didn’t think I could do the picture. You are perfectly entitled to think this and to act on it. But you should have said so to my face long ago. It is shabby to be silent’.
In addition to all the wonderful nuggets of personal data, which in every case bring all the names we know so well, and those may be are new to us, vividly to life, this invaluable volume provides an overview of changing fashions and mores in the British theatre. In the early days of the NT all plays were written and directed by men, and ethnic minorities were barely represented. That has slowly changed, and the NT is now committed to redressing the balance: by 2020 half the directors and playwrights will be women, and 20% will be people of colour – this has already happened with performers.
This is an important and informative book, highly recommended both for theatre practitioners and for anyone with an interest in lively personal correspondence. There is a Foreword by Helen Mirren and a useful introduction by the editor, plus invaluable references and an index.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Dramatic Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of the National Theatre (Profile, 2018). 978-1781259351, 416pp., hardback.
BUY in pbk at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)