The idea of a national theatre, one that celebrates its country’s cultural and performance heritage is a known around the world. A quick look at this list confirms that fact. The Comédie-Française in Paris, which was founded in 1680, is thought to be the world’s first national theatre, but it is clear that a theatre supported by the state is considered by most countries to be an integral part of its cultural fabric.
This month, the National Theatre in the UK celebrates its 50th year and there are a whole host of events connected with the anniversary. I will be sharing many of them here as they will have a relevance and a resonance for any theatre student, no matter where you find yourself reading this. The National, as it is known, plays a huge role in defining the production of quality theatre in the UK, and although not alone in this by any means, it’s very prominent London base, on the river Thames, means it is known around the world. For me personally The National is at the very heart of my involvement with theatre. I remember my first visit at the age of 16 and being in awe of the brutalist building and what it represented. I may not have lived in the UK for many years, but whenever I visit London, I go. I can’t recall ever seeing a poor production and without a doubt some of the best theatre I have ever seen has been at The National. For 30 of its 50 years I have been a patron and I always will be.
What fascinates me, however, is that the land that gave the world William Shakespeare didn’t have its own national theatre until 1963 and even then, it didn’t have a permanent home until 1976. You can read a short history here, from the BBC, The bumpy road to the National Theatre.
Alternatively you can listen to a radio programme from BBC Radio 4, The Road to the National Theatre, (this is the first of two parts) that explores the same journey. In it the journalist James Naughtie sets out to discover why founding it took so long and what was learned along the way. Click to play, below. Fascinating!
In the last decade, The National has forged an international reputation with shows such as The History Boys and even more successfully, War Horse, both of which have toured internationally.
You might think that a national theatre restricts itself to producing plays from its own country or written in the native language. However, a glance at the following list tells a different story, and one that places The National in a league of its own
Playwright’s plays have had the most productions at the National Theatre in the last 50 years
1. William Shakespeare,70 productions
2. Bertolt Brecht, 19 productions
3. Bernard Shaw, 16 productions
4. Anton Chekhov, 16 productions
5. David Hare, 15 new plays
6. Tom Stoppard, 13 productions
7. Harold Pinter, 12 productions
8. Arthur Miller, 10 productions
9. Eugene O’Neill 10 productions
10. Alan Bennett 7 new plays
For a theatre student, the next month or so promises lots of great resources that can be shared, and I will start that with my next post. However, to round this one off, two things that I found interesting were, firstly, the US does not have a state funded national theatre. Secondly, War Horse is about to open in Berlin, in translation – the first time for a play originating from The National. This is particularly noteworthy because it is the first time the first World War has been discussed on a German stage. This article from The Telegraph, written by Dominic Cavendish, discusses the implications of this staging – War Horse in Berlin: behind the scenes – both for The National and German audiences.