The National Theatre Story

Daniel Rosenthal
Oberon Books

The National Theatre Story

There should be no question that The National Theatre Story is the best book on theatre that has been published in living memory.

That might sound like high praise but since Daniel Rosenthal has spent around 10 years compiling this definitive record of the first 50 years of one of our great national institutions, it is fully justified.

In fact, the book starts in pre-history with the various attempts by the great and the good of the theatrical world to create a National Theatre long before 1963 when it finally came into being.

What makes this history so compelling is its combination of straight record, biographies of those that became involved in the process of creating, running, performing or working behind the scenes in the theatre and brief précis of many of the plays that defined the theatre.

Whether you are reading about events before you were born or plays that you have seen, Rosenthal has something fresh and informative to say on almost every occasion.

His portrayals of the artistic directors benefit from a degree of thoroughness rarely seen in any biographer or historian, involving conversations, research and access to vast quantities of written or recorded material that in some cases might well have been derived from private sources.

The institution itself is well worthy of this kind of record, since it has risen to become almost all that those who envisaged it had always dreamed of achieving. This is undoubtedly the leading theatre in the country often putting on the best and most innovative work, while still daring to experiment.

In the early days, it was competing very directly with the Royal Shakespeare Company and, at one point, it seemed as if the two might be merged. However, the founding director and future Lord Laurence Olivier was far too independent minded to throw his hat into the ring with the RSC's (Sir) Peter Hall, who was to become his eventual successor.

Sir Peter comes out of this story as an incredibly inventive and hard-working man but also a mercenary who, at times, might have sacrificed the best interests of the theatre for his own personal benefit.

As well as these two, Harley Granville Barker, who perhaps should have been the original director had anyone had the foresight to create a National Theatre in his lifetime, is well served and there are also affectionate but at times critical portraits of the most recent artistic directors Sirs Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner.

Above all, The National Theatre Story pays homage to everybody that has worked to make this a centre of excellence for 50 years and left it in a state where there is every prospect that it will continue to be at the forefront of British theatrical activity for at least as long again.

Daniel Rosenthal as be congratulated on writing this magnum opus and it cannot be recommended highly enough.

If there is one criticism, it is the size of the mighty tome. While nominally, there are fewer than 1,000 densely-filled pages, in reality there are enough words for at least twice that number in a relatively standard point size. Since the paper is of appropriately good quality, this makes a heavy book to read even at home and would take considerable effort to carry around.

This means that any reader is likely to spend a long but highly enjoyable time getting through it unless they buy an electronic copy. Perhaps when the paperback version is released, it might be split into, say, three volumes for ease of use.

Regardless of that minor quibble, this wonderful read should be on everybody's Christmas and birthday lists. They will not be disappointed.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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