The history of the National Theatre

It is over five decades since the National Theatre Company under Laurence Olivier gave their first ever performance. Since the opening night of Hamlet starring Peter O'Toole on 22 October 1963 the National Theatre has produced over 800 plays. For its first 13 years, the Company worked at the Old Vic Theatre, while waiting for its new home to be completed. In 1976, under Peter Hall, the move took place and Denys Lasdun's National Theatre building was opened by The Queen.

In each of the years since, the National has staged over twenty new productions. Several different productions can be seen in any one week and there are over 1,000 performances every year, given by a company of 150 actors to over 600,000 people, with many more seeing NT productions in the West End, on tour or via NT Live cinema broadcasts.

Successors to Peter Hall as Director of the National Theatre have been Richard Eyre from 1988 to 1997, Trevor Nunn from 1997 to 2003 and Nicholas Hytner, who took over in April 2003. He will be succeeded in April 2015 by Rufus Norris.

The initial struggle to house the company is characteristic of the greater struggle that had persisted for over a century – the struggle to establish a National Theatre. Richard Findlater's article The Winding Road to King's Reach, describes the changing fortunes of the movement for a National Theatre, from the initial proposal by the London publisher Effingham Wilson to the opening of the last of the three auditoriums, the Cottesloe Theatre, in the National's new building. The South Bank site is the subject of an historical survey in SE1 9PX. A look at the National's history impresses on one the vicissitudes attendant on the life of the National Theatre: the great performances, the strikes, the financial exigencies, the awards, and the tours…

This chronology is set out in Stage by Stage. Throughout these various highs and lows the National has achieved its status as one of the greatest theatres in the world.

'…the National Theatre must be its own advertisement - must impose itself on public notice, not by posters or column advertisements in the newspapers, but by the very fact of its ample, dignified, and liberal existence. It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London...It must not even have the air of appealing to a specially literary and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community…It will be seen that the Theatre we propose would be a National Theatre in this sense, that it would be from the first conditionally – and, in the event of success, would become absolutely – the property of the nation.'
Preface (1904) to A National Theatre: Scheme and Estimates by William Archer and H. Granville Barker, London 1907.

It is the same inclusive vision of a theatre for the entire nation that informs the policy of the National Theatre today:

'It's a great time to be a national theatre, and to rise to the challenge of living up to our name. We want to tell the stories that chart the way the nation is changing. We want to bring front-line reports from new communities and generations, and we want to see the present redefined in the context of the past,'
Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National Theatre.

A permanent exhibition, Stage by Stage, on the history of the National is open to the public on the third floor of the National Theatre in the Olivier Circle Gallery.

The Royal National Theatre is a registered charity no: 224223. Registered as a company limited by guarantee in England no: 749504. Registered address Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX