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The history of the National Theatre

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 well 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, Nicholas Hytner from 2003 to 2015, and Rufus Norris from April 2015.

 

 

 

The initial struggle to house the company is characteristic of the greater one 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 published 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. The National's history includes accounts of great performances, strikes, financial exigencies, awards, tours...

This chronology is set out in Stage by Stage, which can be read as a series of pdfs, available below. Throughout the various highs and lows, the National has maintained 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 ever have the air of appealing to a specially literate 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 Harley Granville Barker, London 1907.

Stage by Stage

The development of the National Theatre from 1848

Download the pdfs here:

The beginning (172KB)
The Early Years (650KB)
1976-87 (548KB)
1988-96 (2.5MB)
1997-2002 (90KB)
2002-14 (1MB)

Designed by Michael Mayhew
Compiled by Lyn Haill & Stephen Wood
With thanks to Richard Mangan and The Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection, Monica Sollash and The Theatre Museum
The majority of the photographs in the exhibition were commissioned by the National Theatre and are part of its archive
The exhibition was funded by The Royal National Theatre Foundation

NT Conservation Plan

In 2007 architects Haworth Tompkins (who were responsible for the development of the National Theatre Studio) were appointed by the NT to write a Conservation Management Plan for Denys Lasdun’s Grade II* listed building.

This assesses the architectural significance of the site in all its intricate working detail and places it in its historic context.

Download the file NT Conservation Plan Dec 08 (file size 15.2MB).

The Winding Road to King’s Reach

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 published Effingham Wilson to the opening of the last of the three auditoriums, the Cottesloe Theatre, in the National's new building.

Download the pdf here (441KB)