Behind the scenes at the National Theatre
These gossipy letters between theatrical stars give us a backstage pass to the NT, finds Dominic Cavendish
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