sat 18/11/2017

Listed: Nights to remember at the National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Listed: Nights to remember at the National Theatre

Listed: Nights to remember at the National Theatre

10 personal favourites to mark the NT's 50th

What, 50?!?! James Corden surrenders to the excitement of the momentJohan Persson

The National Theatre tonight hosts its 50th-birthday gala, 11 days after the English-speaking theatre's most important and influential address in fact reached the half-century mark. With celebration comes recollection, not least for those of us for whom the brutalist portals of Denys Lasdun's concrete structure have come over the years to seem nothing less than a second home. 

What follows is a highly personal list of 10 NT productions from the last 30 years (38 in one instance) that I carry with me to this day. These aren't necessarily the NT's biggest hits, though one or two of them were pretty seismic; instead, they represent a cross-section of evenings that have become part of my cultural DNA from an institution uniquely equipped to leave that kind of lasting impact.

1. No Man's Land (1975)

Gielgud and Richardson in No Man's LandI was barely a teenager when I made my first acquaintanceship with the National, albeit in the West End transfer of a defining Harold Pinter play that was first seen at the Old Vic, before the theatre had moved to its present Thames-side address. I'm sure I took very little in at the time as to the importance of this play and of its playwright's relationship with his director, Peter Hall. But even from somewhere near the roof of Wyndham's, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson's reverberant sonorities got to me on some level. Here were a pair of actor-knights from a now-bygone era creating their own theatrical shimmer the likes of which shan't come our way again. (Richardson and Gielgud are pictured above; photo credit: Anthony Crickmay)

2. Glengarry Glen Ross (1983)

By this point, I had moved to London - just - only to find a theatre capital that then and now gives the American repertoire remarkable pride of place. That affinity was borne out spectacularly in Bill Bryden's world premiere production of what has since been acknowledged to be David Mamet's masterwork, seen first time out in a Cottesloe staging which bettered the much-ballyhooed Broadway one to follow. And though he may not be as well known as Joe Mantegna or Al Pacino, Jack Shepherd was a Richard Roma for the ages: an attack dog set adrift amidst a pack of wolves. 

3. Wild Honey (1984)

Chekhov is rarely long absent from any of our major theatres, but Michael Frayn's wholesale rewrite of the Russian master's early Platonov was something else again: an imaginative hybrid that coined the word "Fraynkov" to describe the result. Ian McKellen and Charlotte Cornwell were a giddy central pairing who managed against the odds not to be upstaged by a special effect involving a train that would startle audiences even now. The director, Christopher Morahan, is now known for rather a different reason: as the father of the much-lauded actress, Hattie, herself an NT alumna. 

4. Antony and Cleopatra (1987)

Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench in 1987 at the NTJudi Dench famously joked that she was too much the "menopausal dwarf" to play Cleopatra in a protestation that was blown to smithereens within minutes of the actress's sublimely smoky appropriation of the Egyptian queen in a Peter Hall production that made a long play seem at once sinuous and sexy. Her Antony (Anthony Hopkins, pictured left with Dench; photo credit: John Haynes) has long since forsaken the South Bank; the Dame has not, as tonight's gala will remind us. 

5. Racing Demon (1990)

That rare (maybe only?) production to play all three auditoria at different times, David Hare's play was the first and by some measure best of an NT trilogy that went on to include Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War. Its explicit terrain was the Anglican church in a beleaguered south London riven by social and sexual fissures but the play's abiding topic remains psychic depletion in all its manifestations. Or as Oliver Ford Davies's unforgettable Lionel Espy remarked near play's end, looking askance at the audience and upwards towards God: "Is everything loss?"

6. Carousel (1992)

From a startling opening image that shook off everything you thought you knew about this Rodgers & Hammerstein warhorse through to a tumultuous finale that left the Lyttelton's upholstery awash in sobs, Nicholas Hytner's altogether revelatory staging of this cornerstone of the American musical theatre remains to this day the single greatest revival of any musical in my experience. 

7. Arcadia (1993)

Emma Fielding and Rufus Sewell"What is carnal embrace?" the precocious young Thomasina Coverly asks her adored tutor, Septimus Hodge, in the opening line of Tom Stoppard's dizzyingly wondrous play. That Thomasina never gets to find out lends a terrible ache to a play that put to rest forever the stale canard that Stoppard writes for the head and not the heart. Trevor Nunn's glorious NT premiere featured an as yet unsurpassed (in this play, that is) double-act in Rufus Sewell and Emma Fielding (pictured right; photo credit: Richard Mildenhall), whom I can still see dancing their way into the abyss. 

8. Democracy (2003)

Most people regard Copenhagen as the seminal partnership between playwright Michael Frayn and director Michael Blakemore, but I retain far fonder memories of this well-regarded if less successful follow-up: an NT hit that has yet to click beyond this address (its Broadway transfer was a disaster). The byways of coalition politics in the divided Germany of old might sound like a treatise displaced to the stage, but not as juiced up by a stinging text and two supremely artful performances from Roger Allam as Willy Brandt and the peerless Conleth Hill as the chancellor's most trusted aid, Gunter Guillaume, who also happened to be a Stasi spy.  

9. One Man, Two Guvnors (2011)

Richard Bean's blissful rewrite of Goldoni's pre-existing commedia dell'arte template was and is that rare feel-good show that actually does leave playgoers walking on air. Who can forget the scene-stealing antics of Tom Edden as the vertiginously challenged waiter Alfie, or the divine Oliver Chris, arching an eyebrow towards the Lyttelton roof? But it was James Corden's mixture of heart and heft that sent Nicholas Hytner's production soaring here and on Broadway. I've now seen the play four times without Corden and guess what? It still works. 

Kinnear and Lester10. Othello (2013)

Okay, I hear people grumbling: why have Nicholas Hytner productions snared what might seem a disproportionate three out of 10 slots? Well, you try bettering any of the chosen trio, not least Hytner's most recent modern-dress Shakespeare, which built upon and then exceeded the same director's work on Henry V and Hamlet. This Olivier entry found the stars of those two productions (Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester, pictured left; photo credit: Johan Persson) brought together for a tumultuous face-off in what seemed in every way a summary statement of what a shared Shakespearean vision over time can achieve. 

So, what do you do for an encore? In the world of the subsidised theatre you quite rightly pass the torch. Here's wishing Rufus Norris a warm welcome as artistic director and a grand party to all tonight. 

Why have Nicholas Hytner productions snared what might seem a disproportionate three of these ten slots? Well, you try bettering any of the chosen trio

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