Kate Maltby Kate Maltby

The National Theatre – 50 years (and more) in The Spectator

Today the National Theatre hosts a gala performance, screened on BBC2 at 9pm, to celebrate fifty years since its launch as a company in 1963. You can view the full programme here – I’d wanted to be cynical about a Greatest Hits parade, but reading the cast list, it simply looks astounding.

But it’s not the fiftieth birthday of Denys Lasdun’s building on the South Bank – that robotic monstrosity, suggestive of an early design for Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, if Bay’s anthropomorphic tanks could ever rear onto hind legs while made of concrete. When the building was finally complete in 1977, Auberon Waugh told The Spectator’s readers that the ‘hideous edifice’ was an apt stage for all that was ugly in modern Britain, musing like the chorus of Henry V: ‘may we cram within this concrete O the casques that did affright the air at William Tyndale Comprehensive School?’

Yet as Helen Smith recognised in a two part special on Lasdun’s architecture that same year, ‘The National Theatre is saved by the river, an enhancing foil to the expansive and dominant building, since it provides both space and movement.’ She was right – it is the National’s piazza by the river that makes it a vital London hub. Smith also reminded readers ‘Those who gasp at the horror of heated outdoor spaces must remember that this was a mid-‘sixties conception, sadly out of date.’ In fact, everything about the National was out of date. It was twenty-eight years since Parliament had first voted to build it. And just shy of seventy since the campaign behind it was launched.

There isn’t space here to list all the bumps in the road in those years. But right from Granville Barker’s first public campaign meeting in 1908, The Spectator has always had the story.

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