Be­hind the scenes at the Na­tional Theatre

These gos­sipy let­ters be­tween the­atri­cal stars give us a back­stage pass to the NT, finds Do­minic Cavendish

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -


448pp, Pro­file, £20, ebook £12.99

ive years ago, in The Na­tional Theatre Story, which ran to more than 800 pages, Daniel Rosen­thal gave read­ers al­most ev­ery­thing they might want to know about the pro­duc­tions – and fluc­tu­at­ing for­tunes – of the most im­por­tant sub­sidised theatre in the UK. It took us from em­bry­onic plans for a “house for Shake­speare” in the 19th cen­tury and sundry false dawns, past the found­ing of the NT as a com­pany at the Old Vic in 1963, through its tor­tu­ous ar­rival on the South Bank in 1976, and up to the anni mirabiles of the Ni­cholas Hyt­ner regime.

Rosen­thal’s fol­low-up pro­ject is a lit­tle more friv­o­lous, but no less fas­ci­nat­ing, and far trim­mer. He spent two years sift­ing 12,000 pieces of cor­re­spon­dence to alight on 800 items that tell the NT “story” from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, giv­ing the reader a VIP pass to go back­stage and eaves­drop. Only those bereft of ba­sic nosi­ness, loftily above tit­tle-tattle or dis­dain­ful of theatre it­self will fail to find in­trigue on al­most ev­ery page.

Al­though there is some ad­mir­ing gush (“I feel so jeal­ous I could SPIT,” Judi Dench told David Hare in 1990 af­ter watch­ing Racing De­mon), the pre­sid­ing and stir­ring im­pres­sion is more of a Shake­spearean sweep of striv­ing and fal­li­ble hu­man­ity. It would be stretch­ing things to say that the vol­ume has the thrill of an epis­to­lary novel, but the pre­sent­tense­ness gives it a “drama”: we know (guided by Rosen­thal) how things work out; the writ­ers didn’t. The sense of pre­car­i­ous­ness and un­cer­tainty is most pro­nounced in the Lau­rence Olivier years at the Old Vic, with “Larry” at once firmly in com­mand and at the mercy of other cal­i­bre-ac­tors’ will­ing­ness to join the new en­ter­prise, with many play­wrights still look­ing to the West End as the guar­an­tor of money and rep­u­ta­tion.

Take the war of words that flared up around the 1964 pre­miere of Beck­ett’s Play, di­rected by Ge­orge Devine, then artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Royal Court. Kenneth Ty­nan, who had laid aside his crit­i­cal pen to serve as NT lit­er­ary man­ager, wor­ried about the three char­ac­ters’ breath­less flat de­liv­ery. “Beck­ett has never sat through any of his plays in the pres­ence of an au­di­ence,” Ty­nan ad­vised, “but we have to live with that au­di­ence night af­ter night!”

Cue a fu­ri­ous ri­poste from Devine. “You’ll have to have a bit more guts if you re­ally want to do ex­per­i­men­tal works, which, nine times out of 10, only come off for a ‘mi­nor­ity’ to be­gin with.” He cc’d in Olivier, who chan­nelled Henry VIII in the mol­li­fi­ca­tion he sent in re­ply: “I am not go­ing chop­ping off heads right left and cen­tre un­til I have de­cided that what is in them is not worth keep­ing. My love to you dear­est one.” “You can be too f---ing taste­less for words,” he snapped at Mr T in a memo.

That worry about au­di­ence en­gage­ment ex­pressed by Ty­nan (who is to be found, two years later, beg­ging Paul McCart­ney in vain to pro­vide a Bea­tles score for As You Like It) couldn’t sim­ply be slapped down as vul­gar­ity. It went with the ter­ri­tory. The ti­tle (and theme) of Hyt­ner’s 2017 mem­oir – Balanc­ing Acts – al­luded to the tus­sle be­tween tak­ing risks and putting “bums on seats”. Here, we find John Os­borne, an en­joy­ably growl­ing mal­con­tent, steam ever ris­ing from his nostrils, tick­ing off Sir Peter Hall in 1976 for end­ing the run of his un­der-at­tended Watch It Come Down: “I can only say that it seems a hasty, Shaftes­bury

Ave-like de­ci­sion and if that is the way the NT is go­ing to carry on, play­ing safe … the whole ex­er­cise is ab­surd from my point of view.”

A reader might marvel at some of the NT’s more mis­guided re­jec­tions – the theatre had no call for Ju­lian Mitchell’s An­other Coun­try or Pam Gems’ Piaf, both sub­se­quent smashes – but, ev­i­dently, the need to weigh pop­ulist ap­peal against aes­thetic value has been as much a cours­ing con­stant as the Thames. One smiles at this sen­tence from Alan Ben­nett to Richard Eyre in 1992: “I saw in the pa­per Ge­orge III was play­ing to 99 per cent ca­pac­ity. Typ­i­cally I started wor­ry­ing about the other 1 per cent. Love, Alan.” But the book charts the way that box-of­fice suc­cess has in­creas­ingly been looked at with un­com­pli­cated

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