THE NT AT 50: BBC2, 2/11/13.
Something uneasy stirs in Carole Woddis’s soul during the NT’s 50th birthday party.
It was a feast for those who like their theatre mostly classical, a showcase for the kind of work we Brits are never tired of saying is the envy of the world.
And how can it not be when you have Dame Maggie breathing life into Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, Derek Jacobi mischievous and inventive in Sir John Gielgud’s old part in No Man’s Land, Dame Judi reprising ‘Send In the Clowns’ and Cleopatra’s speech from Antony & Cleopatra, reminding this viewer once again that in over 50 years no one, for me, has ever come close to endowing Titania’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with such drama and lyricism.
Of the newer generation, Andrew Scott was revelatory in Angels in America, James Corden repeated his pratfall exuberance and Frances de la Tour rounded off the two and a half hours spectacular with Alan Bennett’s humane and heartfelt speech from The Habit of Art about how the concrete bunker that appeared to be Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre when it opened, had been softened and pummelled into affection by "plays, plays, plays". It was good too, to be reminded of the wonder, excitement and democracy of Bill Bryden’s The Mysteries. They were productions truly of the people and for the people, whatever your spiritual persuasion.
Yet for all this excellence something uneasy stirs in the soul. If this is the National Theatre of England over the past half century, what did it show us? A largely White middle class face for a largely White middle class audience. No plays by women save for the very recent, verbatim-based London Road by Alecky Blythe. Almost no Black writers, save for Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina Kitchen, and a departure from the middle road provided only by Angels in America and Jerry Springer: The Opera.
England and English theatre – not to say British theatre – is made up of so much more, so many varied, independent voices. On such an evening and for such an event, perhaps one should not have expected anything different. But…the National Theatre of England now should represent the nation in all its rich variety. Let’s hope the next 50 years does precisely that.
And for an alternative view of at least the first twenty five years, between 1960 and the mid 1980s, the exhibition, about to be launched in London, Re-Staging Revoluions at the Ovalhouse, by Susan Croft and Jessica Higgs’s Unfinished Histories project may offer a truer vision of British theatre in all its many-coloured splendour and variety. An alternative national theatre, if you will. (www.unfinishedhistories.com).