The National Theatre opened its doors in 1963 with Laurence Olivier as its first director. Eight hundred productions later, the venerable institution celebrates its 50th anniversary with a starry cast of theater legends to applaud the remarkable people and plays that have made the NT one of the most cherished and creative wellspring’s of international theater: from premieres of plays by Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer, Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett and David Hare, to outstanding revivals of classic plays and musicals.
Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton and many more are part of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage, airing Friday, February 14 at 9 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).
Directed by the NT’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, the star-studded evening of live performance also features rare glimpses from the archive spotlighting many of the most celebrated actors who have performed on the National’s stages over the past five decades.
In his five-star review, Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph remarked that the evening featured “(a) cast that seemed like a who’s who of British theatre…” Michael Billington in The Guardian called it “a brilliant kaleidoscopic entertainment that not only evoked the National’s past but also, through astute recasting, opened up possibilities for the future.” And Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail dubbed it “(t)he kind of fabled, luminous night that people talk about for years…The whole evening was a triumph.”
Extracts range from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (with Benedict Cumberbatch) to The History Boys (with playwright Alan Bennett and original stars James Corden and Dominic Cooper), and from Mourning Becomes Electra (with Helen Mirren and Tim Pigott-Smith) to Bedroom Farce (with Maggie Smith’s “Downtown Abbey” co-star Penelope Wilton).
There are musical numbers from A Little Night Music (Judi Dench singing “Send in the Clowns”), My Fair Lady (Alex Jennings as Henry Higgins leading Eliza and Pickering in “The Rain in Spain”), and Guys and Dolls (Clive Rowe bringing down the house with “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”).
Priceless archival scenes include Noel Coward’s Hay Fever (with Maggie Smith), Amadeus (with Paul Scofield), and Richard III (with Ian McKellen). There are felicitous juxtapositions of then and now, such as Smith’s youthful turn in the Coward play followed by her live-on-stage speech from Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Strategem.
A special treat is Joan Plowright recreating her Saint Joan on the stage of the Old Vic, the home of the original National Theatre – prior to the construction of the present South Bank complex — run by husband Olivier.
The cast of 100 also includes Roger Allam, Simon Russell Beale, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Eccleston, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Rory Kinnear, Adrian Lester, Anna Maxwell Martin, Andrew Scott, and many more.
About the National Theatre
The National Theatre stages over 20 productions a year, ranging from new plays to classics from the world repertoire, in its three theatres on London’s South Bank; it transfers shows to the West End and Broadway as well as touring productions around the UK and internationally. With a commitment to openness, wide-reaching engagement and access for everyone, the National broadcasts live performances to cinema screens all over the world through the National Theatre Live program, as well as offering extensive learning and public engagement programs and innovative digital resources. The National Theatre strives to be a national centre of theatrical arts, central to the creative life of the country and unmatched in the world for scale, range of repertoire and audience reach. The National Theatre Story by Daniel Rosenthal will be published in the United States by Oberon Books/Theatre Communications Group to coincide with the PBS broadcast.
About the Production
A National Theatre Production in association with BBC Events Production and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, The National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage was directed for television by Tim Van Someren and produced by Robin Hawkes, with David Sabel as executive producer.
Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers.
Great Performances is funded by the Irene Diamond Fund, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, The LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, The Agnes Varis Trust, Rosalind P. Walter, The Starr Foundation, and public television viewers, and PBS.
For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is series producer; David Horn is executive producer.