Performing Arts in the 20th Century - A Photographic Exhibition

National Theatre

If you are passing under the National Theatre in next week or so, pop in and give yourself a treat. The Getty Picture Library has provided a collection of iconic photographs of performing artists, selected by NT Director Nicholas Hytner. These cover not only the stage but also opera, dance and music.

Each of the images is potentially on sale although as an example, the pick of the bunch, a photograph of a smoking John Osborne in his heyday soon after the opening of Look Back in Anger will set you back £1,300 in the version in the exhibition. Do not despair if this seems a little steep for a photo. Apparently, it may be possible to get photographs in other sizes and therefore at other prices.

From the opening photograph, a spider-like Max Wall, the quality is impressive. As well as Osborne, there is a stream of theatrical greats with Lord Olivier given four opportunities to shine, two in women's clothing! The best of these is a photograph of his retirement party where he is singing and having a ball to the accompaniment of Dennis Quilley on piano with a very happy looking Joan Plowright in the background. One of his other wives Vivien Leigh is also featured in one of the most dramatic photos of all, being attacked in a 1949 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

John Gielgud makes a couple of appearances, once in a portrait with Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson and again with the same leading lady but this time looking very romantic in 1945 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This pair can easily be compared with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in a similar pose from Private Lives.

Going back a generation or two, there is a photo of Harley Granville Barker looking casual, one of Marie Rambert in mid-air and another of Donald Wolfit looking characteristic.

The oldest generation is represented by Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs Patrick Campbell acting together in Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. They are the worst victims of the one weakness in this exhibition, appalling captions. The powers that be at the Getty Library should really feel ashamed of a series of embarrassments including "a marvellous image from the turn of the century, to celebrate actresses, soon to have only three legs between them".

The pleasures just keep rolling on with an elderly Dame Edith Evans, a picture that captures the drama of Look Back in Anger in 1956, the theatrical knights Sir Michael Gambon and Sir Antony Sher playing Lear and the Fool for the RSC in 1982, a very young Judi Dench 46 years ago and Peter O'Toole heavily made up. Representing the directors, Peter Brook looks compelling.

The Irish are represented by Sean O'Casey and Samuel Beckett, perhaps inevitably with the Billie Whitelaw preparing for Happy Days.

In addition to the theatre, dance is well represented with Kenneth MacMillan amongst others, while the musicians are led by a bug-eyed Sir John Barbirolli and the striking Igor Stravinsky.

The public are not forgotten with images including a lengthy queue for tickets to see Dame Joan Sutherland at the Royal Opera House and rapt children excited by what for many were had been their first ever sight of live performance.

Since the exhibition is at the National, it is perhaps best to conclude with its longest-serving director on the South Bank, Sir Peter Hall, photographed in front of the building in which the exhibition takes place.

Perhaps the best thing of all is that the exhibition is free.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher