Far be it from me to rain on the National Theatre’s fiftieth birthday parade, but allow me to make a few slightly-less-than-gushing remarks about the recent two-part Arena documentary and tonight’s compilation album of extracts. (The two films are on BBC iPlayer for the next four days: The Dream here and War and Peace here – and you have a week to re-run the live gala 50 Years on Stage here.) It has been thrilling to see British theatre given such attention when by and large it remains one of the artforms that is less present than it might be on television. But I have to say that I have found all the self-congratulation just a touch too cloying.
Overall, the live gala came across to me as unsatisfactory on the small screen. There were some terrific tidbits, like the scenes from Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda with Ralph Fiennes as the media mogul who seemingly must not be named (at least on screen), Helen Mirren and Tim Piggot-Smith in a scene from O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and, yes, Judi Dench singing ‘Send in the Clowns’. But for me the string of party pieces was unsatisfactory, never really giving a sense of how a production of a great play can immerse you in another world.
Not that this was the dominant view on the #nt50 Twitter stream last night which saw a torrent of love towards the actors and event. Some, however, pointed out that perhaps the inclusion of three plays by David Hare – the equal of Shakespeare’s representation – was maybe one too many. Or two. Or… but that would be unkind. Especially when Alecky Blythe, co-writer with composer Adam Cork on the musical London Road, was the only woman playwright of the night.
The event was also overwhelmingly white, and in the back of my mind there was the description of the National by playwright Kwami Khei-Armah in the second of the Arena documentaries: ‘It was a lily-white institution [when he went there in 2003 with Emina’s Kitchen] and it was an upper middle-class institution.’ Added to which, and even with powerful extracts from Angels in America and Jerry Springer – The Opera, it felt all-too-safe.
Perhaps a fiftieth birthday party is not the night to challenge or confront your audience, but there wasn’t too much here with the sense of dislocation and danger that the greatest theatre can offer. The live presentation was excitingly slick, but there’s something odd if much of your (that is, my) admiration is reserved for the lightning-fast scene changes (apparently all achieved without using the Olivier Theatre’s revolve).
(You should of course read my comments here with the awareness that I am working part-time as Media Associate for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which might be regarded in certain contexts as a rival to the National Theatre, and – as regular readers will know – on 13 November I am producing the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon Richard II broadcast to cinemas. Ascribe as much of my uncertainty about these programmes to those affiliations as you wish.)
As for the twin documentaries, produced by Martin Rosenbaum and directed by Adam Low, the first is stronger than the second. Part two too often feels like a 90-minute catalogue of greatest hits from the years since Peter Hall took over in 1973. The opening film concentrates on the role of Laurence Olivier in setting up the National and there is much here that is treasurable, including the film’s allusive treatment of the relationship between Olivier and his mercurial dramaturg Kenneth Tynan.
Striking, though, is how little archive there is of the great productions across the past fifty years. There is, seemingly, much behind-the scenes documentary footage, including a delightful clip of BBC music and events commissioning executive Jan Younghusband from the time when she was Peter Hall’s personal assistant. But time and again, the films rely on live audio recordings combined with stills to conjure up productions past.
For much of the tale, there appears to be an appropriate distance from the subject, with the nicely judged inclusion of critical comments, as when in the first film Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow, says of the manner in which Peter Hall was lined up as his successor, ‘It was treachery of the highest order’. But the final twenty minutes of the second film tip over into promotional mode, uncritically hymning the achievements of departing director Nicholas Hytner. Like most of the rest of the world, I am a huge fan of what Hytner has achieved with the National, but I am not sure that achievement is best marked by a film that felt just too close to its subject.