Selected and edited by Daniel Rosenthal
Daniel Rosenthal has written what is almost certainly the best theatre book of the last decade, The National Theatre Story. Nothing could compete with that magnum opus but his name is a guarantee of quality and, like its predecessor, there has to be every chance that this new volume will be a prizewinner.
The author is greatly helped by his publisher, Profile Books, which maintains what are now old-fashioned qualities in presenting a hardback volume on high quality paper with excellent photographs to complement the text and a realistic cover price of £25.
The subtitle gives a good idea of what readers can look forward to. This is "The Lives & Letters of the National Theatre"—a wide selection of communications that together build an impressionistic vision of Britain's premier theatre, starting with the times when it was merely a dream for the likes of William Archer, Harley Granville Barker and Thomas Hardy to the Rufus Norris years.
The intrepid Daniel Rosenthal has ploughed through many thousands of letters in an effort to find those that best catch the spirit of the venue and its work at each particular point in time.
His selection includes anything and everything, including highly contentious and political arguments, artistic agreements and disagreements, many views of what it takes to get playwrights to write, directors to direct and actors to act and so much more.
Indeed, somewhat unexpectedly but pleasingly there even letters from members of the general public praising and/or attacking specific plays.
After an initial, historical chapter, "Six Decades of False Dawns", the communications swiftly move forward to what are dubbed "The Olivier Years".
The text is organised chronologically, split by Artistic Director and then further subdivided by play and occasionally topic, the latter usually relating to the departure or appointment of the top man (and to date it has always been a man).
There are thrills and spills galore with some quite spectacular spats and tricky moments over some of the more controversial plays. It is a helpful retrospective that reminders of the breadth and depth of work presented at the National since it opened in 1963 and then moved to its current location in 1976. Everyone will have favourites but the mouth waters at memories of everything from the very first play, Hamlet starring Peter O'Toole to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Romans in Britain, Amadeus, The Hare Trilogy, The History Boys, One Man, Two Guvnors and, the most recent inclusion, Oslo.
In addition, it is fascinating to discover some of the pieces that never quite made it to a stage at the South Bank. Whatever happened to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?
While many readers may choose to dip in and find out about their favourite artistes or plays, Dramatic Exchanges is a really good read and its 400 pages can easily be devoured from cover to cover over the period of a couple of entertaining days.
In summary, this book can be regarded as a kind of alternative history that is incredibly accessible, great fun and nostalgic in the very best way. It cannot be recommended highly enough and Daniel Rosenthal had better start putting the dates of award ceremonies into his diary now.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher