The National Theatre was an idea long before it came into being, and our history and the drama on our stages has reflected the changing social and political fabric of Britain.
Throughout our history, successive Directors and their teams have explored and developed both elements of our name: what it means to make theatre, and what it means to be national.
The following potted history is based on research and writing from The National Theatre Guide by Sarah Hemming, available in our bookshop.
Do the English people want a national theatre? Of course they do not. They never want anything. They got the British Museum, the National Gallery, and Westminster Abbey, but they never wanted them. But once these things stood as mysterious phenomena that had come to them, they were quite proud of them, and felt that the place would be incomplete without them.
– George Bernard Shaw
In 1848, London publisher Effingham Wilson was the first to call for a national theatre, in a pamphlet entitled ‘A House for Shakespeare’. But it would be another century before a law would be passed releasing funds for the building of a national theatre (1949), 115 years before a National Theatre company would launch (1963) and a further 13 years (1976) before the dedicated building – now so synonymous with the institution – would be opened to the public.
The National Theatre’s passage into full, concrete existence is a rollercoaster story of ups and downs, deals and delays, and the sheer passion of obstinate, optimistic, remarkable individuals. One particularly passionate voice was the playwright Harley Granville-Barker. He, together with critic William Archer drew up a blueprint, ‘Scheme & Estimates for a National Theatre’, in 1904. Their remarkably detailed plans included everything from a proposed repertoire to company size, wages, seating capacity and seat prices. The outbreak of the First World War, however, brought plans to a halt. Granville-Barker took up the cause again in 1930, with the young publisher Geoffrey Whitworth, founder of the British Drama League, also mounting a vigorous campaign.
By 1937 the money was found for a theatre, this time opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington, and designs commissioned – but the Second World War led to this being shelved again.
In 1949 parliament finally passed the National Theatre Bill, authorising £1m of public funds for the building of a national theatre on the South Bank of the Thames. In 1951 the foundation stone was laid by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother). But as plans changed, so did the site – several times – prompting her to joke that the foundation stone should be mounted on castors.
Progress stalled; proposals came and went. Indeed, at one point critics Kenneth Tynan and Richard Findlater, despairing at lack of progress, staged a mock funeral for the National Theatre next to the stone.
1962–1973: Laurence Olivier
In August 1962, Laurence Olivier was appointed Director of the National Theatre. In Olivier, the National had not just a leading actor at the helm, but a celebrity and a consummate man of the theatre: probably the only person at the time capable of reenergising the project and getting both the government and the country behind it.
Olivier gathered around him some of the leading actors and directors of his day, as well as that famously trenchant theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, who went on to play a huge role in selecting the theatre’s repertoire of plays.
The fledgling company was offered the use of the Old Vic by the governors of the theatre, and promptly moved into the Victorian theatre just beside Waterloo Station, running administration from a series of huts in nearby Aquinas Street.
It was from this heady mix of the sophisticated and the makeshift that the National Theatre created its first productions. On 22 October 1963 it was finally launched with a production of Hamlet starring the young Peter O’Toole.
While keeping one foot firmly in tradition, Olivier also gathered into the company younger, more radical talents, such as directors John Dexter and William Gaskill from the Royal Court Theatre (home of new writing, where Olivier himself had appeared in John Osborne’s ground-breaking The Entertainer). And he made the venue an actors’ theatre, assembling a 50-strong company, among them Michael Redgrave, Cyril Cusack, Maggie Smith, Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay, Derek Jacobi, Robert Stephens and Michael Gambon.
By the end of his tenure, Olivier had established the National Theatre as a prestigious and influential actor-led company. He had, after much wrangling both inside the Building Committee and outside in the broader political sphere, been able to agree a design for the new building on the South Bank by Denys Lasdun and perform the ‘topping out’ ceremony in 1973.
1973–1988: Peter Hall
It was a generational shift, but also a shift of emphasis: Olivier came from the older generation of actor-managers, while Hall represented a move into what was loosely called ‘directors’ theatre’. A man of phenomenal energy and tenacity, Hall had staged the English premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when in his mid-20, and had founded the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was just 29.
His job, upon becoming Director, was daunting. The construction of the new National Theatre building was underway, but subject to endless delays and setbacks: he had to cancel several productions and, in the end, simply moved into the unfinished structure once one auditorium (the Lyttelton) was complete. The company rehearsed in what was still, in many places, a building site. Even once the building finally opened fully, in 1976, industrial strikes and budget cuts would make running the National Theatre challenging.
However, the new National Theatre was an ambitious, optimistic and unique undertaking – bigger, with its three auditoriums and huge staff, than anything in Europe or America. It was inspiring too in its egalitarian determination to create a whole new model of theatre-making, with spacious foyers, multiple bars, cafes and toilets for audiences; workshops, offices, dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces for staff – the idea being that everyone, from artistic director to wigmaker to audience member, would be under one roof. In 1984, the playwright and director Peter Gill founded the Studio, now the New Work Department: a workshop where writers, director and actors can experiment with work and try out ideas away from the pressure of presentation.
Hall went on to direct and oversee some ground-breaking pieces of work: among them a landmark, masked production of the ancient Greek tragedy The Oresteia on the Olivier stage (1981), a seminal Antony and Cleopatra, with Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench as the royal lovers (1987) and a stinging, and immensely topical political drama about newspaper ownership, Pravda (1985), by Howard Brenton and David Hare. Hall’s time in charge also saw the premiere of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer (1979), the trauma around Brenton’s controversial Romans in Britain (1980) which drew the wrath of self-appointed moral guardian Mary Whitehouse, and the first musical at the National Theatre – Guys and Dolls (1982) – which attracted criticism from those who felt the National Theatre was not the place for musicals, but which went on to be a huge success. When Hall stood down in 1988, he and the building had weathered an immensely turbulent period in British politics, and the National Theatre had become a permanent fixture with an international reputation.
1988–1997: Richard Eyre
The director who had staged Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982, establishing a precedent for dazzling productions of musicals in the Olivier Theatre, was Richard Eyre. He would go on to become, in 1988, the National Theatre’s third Director. Eyre had already run Nottingham Playhouse, where he had staged many new plays, and had produced the contemporary drama programme Play for Today for the BBC. He brought that appetite for bold, topical and large-scale new work to the National Theatre, cementing the principle that the theatre could and should act as a public forum on occasions: a place to address and contemplate the big issues of the day.
Eyre’s period at the helm of the National Theatre was immensely successful and pushed forward the theatre’s identity as the home of incisive, state-of-the-nation new writing.
Most famously, Eyre commissioned and directed David Hare’s ‘state of the nation’ trilogy about major British institutions: Racing Demon (the Church of England), Murmuring Judges (the legal system) and The Absence of War (politics). Tony Kushner’s epic and ground-breaking work Angels in America (1992), talking openly about the AIDS crisis and the political reaction to it; Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution (1988) about Antony Blunt, who was both a spy and personal art adviser to the Queen, and his poignant piece The Madness of George III (1991), Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (1992); the dazzling and funny Arcadia (1993) by Tom Stoppard.
Eyre championed new writers, such as Patrick Marber with Dealer’s Choice (1995) and Closer (1997) and encouraged a new generation of directors such as Nicholas Hytner, Katie Mitchell, Deborah Warner, Simon McBurney and Declan Donnellan. There were also revivals that reinvigorated classic plays: Ian Holm as a devastating King Lear, Ian McKellen as a chilling Richard III in an alternative, fascist 1930s Britain and an expressionist production of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls from Stephen Daldry (1992). The theatre also toured more than ever before (the National Theatre Studio made the first-ever visit by a British theatre company to Lithuania) and worked on co-productions with companies around the country.
1997–2003: Trevor Nunn
Trevor Nunn had, at age 27, succeeded Peter Hall as artistic director of the RSC. Nunn arrived with a reputation for combining brilliant work on Shakespeare – such as his intense, claustrophobic 1976 production of Macbeth, starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellen – with an eye for the epic and the popular. He had premiered the RSC’s nine-hour staging of Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby; more famously still he had also staged the literary musicals Cats (based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot) and Les Misérables (based on the Victor Hugo novel) and the roller-skating extravaganza Starlight Express – all of which had become colossal hits.
He was sanguine both at the time of his appointment and later about the role that he might be expected to play at the National Theatre at a time of standstill government funding. ‘They [the National Theatre] wanted a period of consolidation,’ he would later say in a BBC interview. ‘I knew that was what was expected of me.’
Nunn brought in many popular musicals – Oklahoma (1998), South Pacific (2001), Anything Goes (2002) and My Fair Lady (2001) – drawing criticism from those who felt that the National Theatre should be staging more challenging fare. Nunn’s contention was always that the line drawn between high art and show-business was a fairly arbitrary one and that Shakespeare himself would place searing tragedy and knockabout comedy side by side in one play (the porter scene in Macbeth for instance).
But he also staged 35 new plays, including Michael Frayn’s dazzling Copenhagen (1998); Joe Penhall’s clever and challenging piece on mental health care Blue/Orange (2000); Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House (2001); a technically demanding brace of plays by Alan Ayckbourn – House and Garden (1999) – that necessitated a cast of actors sprinting from one stage to another throughout the evening; plus work from Roy Williams, Richard Bean and Tanika Gupta. And he mounted a season called ‘Transformation’, in a new 100-seat theatre at the top of the building, to allow more experimental drama to be staged by emerging young talents and to introduce new audiences to new work at new prices.
2003–2015: Nicholas Hytner
We want to make art, and we know we’re in show-business… You start with a vision, and you deliver a compromise. You want a play to be challenging, ambitious, nuanced and complicated. You also want it to sell tickets.
– Nicholas Hytner, Balancing Acts
That keen understanding fuelled Hytner’s period in charge, together with his aspiration that ‘the National Theatre should explore both the state of the nation and the boundaries of the theatre.’
Under Hytner, the National Theatre would work hard to fulfil those aims. He was determined to open the theatre up further, to pull new work out of small studio theatres and onto the big stages and to galvanise and attract new audiences both within the building itself and further afield.
Soon after he arrived, the theatre secured the Travelex sponsorship that would underwrite cheap tickets and encourage younger and less affluent theatre-goers to attend: throughout the Travelex £10 Season two-thirds of tickets in the Olivier would be pegged at £10.
The period saw the launch of National Theatre Live – the live broadcast of productions to cinemas across the UK and worldwide – and to build on the practices of touring and West End transfers. The development of National Theatre Productions, a team to oversee this arm of National Theatre work, also ensured that the theatre retained the financial responsibility for such endeavours and so was able to recycle any profits back into the system to sustain future work.
He opened with a statement of intent. One of the earliest shows was Jerry Springer: The Opera, a flamboyantly foul-mouthed musical based on the TV chat show and asking big questions, beneath all the satire, about the moral responsibility of television. The first production he directed was a vibrant and timely Henry V: a modern-dressed production of a play about the politics of going to war, mounted against the backdrop of unease about the Iraq War and starring a Black British actor – Adrian Lester – as the king. It was well received, expressing Hytner’s conviction that Shakespeare is ‘the new century’s sharpest political commentator’ and put down a marker about the theatre’s intentions regarding improving representation on stage.
This period saw the programming of some of the National Theatre’s most commercially successful shows: Alan Bennett’s poignant comedy The History Boys (2004); Richard Bean’s deliriously funny adaptation of a Goldoni farce The Servant of Two Masters, retitled One Man, Two Guvnors (2011); The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012), adapted by Simon Stephens from the moving novel by Mark Haddon; and War Horse (2007), a wartime story starring a non-speaking equine puppet in the lead that would go on to be a worldwide hit.
What does theatre mean? Of course it means entertainment, and provocation, and the power of the story as a way of understanding who we are. But increasingly it is important also that theatre is the centre of debate for what’s going on in the nation.
– Rufus Norris
Before his appointment, Rufus Norris had frequently directed at the National Theatre and was an Associate Director. Like Hytner, the first production Norris directed was a statement of intent. Everyman was a bold adaptation of the 15th-century morality tale by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, with BAFTA-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the eponymous everyman. It considered modern materialism and impending climate disaster, taking place in a contemporary neon landscape. The production brought together many of the elements that would become the new mission statement of the theatre: to make world-class theatre that is entertaining, challenging and inspiring, for everyone.
Throughout much of this period, Norris has worked closely with Executive Director, Lisa Burger, as co-Chief Executives. While all previous Directors have worked closely with their Executive Directors, they have jointly overseen an ambitious growth of national and international work, with record breaking transfer, touring and co-commissioning levels that recognise the crucial role the National Theatre plays in supporting the health of the UK’s theatre sector.
New writing has featured heavily in the programming for all three theatres at the National Theatre for the first time. Major broadcast and digital offerings have shaped the growing international reputation of the National Theatre, including the National Theatre Collection, which makes streamed productions available to schools, universities and libraries worldwide.
The National Theatre now offers huge programme of opportunities for children and young people across the UK, including four major participation programmes for different age groups, and touring directly into school halls. A new huge community programme, Public Acts, uses the co-creation of theatre as a means of strengthening cohesion, confidence and local pride.
An emphasis on making major strides in diversity and sustainability on top of all this has shaped every part of the National Theatre’s work.
Notable productions have included Angels in America and Network (2017), Nine Night, Home, I’m Darling, Amadeus and The Lehman Trilogy (2018), Alex Zeldin’s Inequality Triptych (2016–2019), Small Island and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2019).
Contemporary resonance combined with a progressive approach to onstage representation have become hallmarks of Norris’ personal artistic projects as Director, acknowledging the crucial social role of theatre in a period of unprecedented national challenge. In the wake of the EU referendum, Norris commissioned a project collecting reflections from people right across the UK, which would later become the verbatim production My Country; a work in progress. In his 2017 production of Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood, Olivia Colman’s Jenny makes a terrible, life-changing decision because of her struggle to distinguish between expert opinion and theories circulated online. And in 2019, Norris directed Small Island, an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel set in Jamaica and London leading up to the arrival of the Empire Windrush.