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NT50, or The Habit of Art

Fifty years ago today, or rather tonight, or more accurately tonight in a different timezone so it was tonight there but still today here, Peter O’Toole played Hamlet in the first performance under the aegis of the National Theatre. Probably not under an actual aegis, not, you know, literally under. Although possibly. They’ve surely done plenty of things under aegides over the last five decades and (according to their website) eight hundred productions. By the way, in that production, directed by Laurence Olivier: Rosemary Harris, Michael Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, Max Adrian, etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Your Humble Blogger has been gorging himself on NT50 stuff. The National Histories panel sessions are lovely—a set list of ten questions being asked to two participants at a time (mostly actors, but some writers and directors and so forth) in 45-minute sessions all filmed for YouTubitude. The best part is watching those people who are incapable of answering a question whilst seated. Edward Petherbridge is the most wonderful—seriously, he can’t do it, he tries at one point and cannot. Jim Carter also has to illustrate his remarks physically, and Nancy Carroll manages to be impressively mobile within the confines of her chair. Also it’s fun to catch the resonances and connections—I think Nancy Carroll was the one whose first connection to the National was seeing Guys and Dolls. Imelda Staunton was in the chorus of that show (it was where she met her husband, Jim Carter, who was playing Big Julie, and the story of how he got that part is wonderful), and if I am remembering correctly, the first National show she saw was Olivier’s famous Othello at the Old Vic. Edward Petherbridge was an attendant lord in that production. And so on. For one generation, stories about the National are almost by definition Olivier stories; for another they are something else—The Mysteries stories most likely.

Anyway, the thing about gorging myself on the NT50 stuff (I also watched The Hour, a 30-minute (don’t be fooled) documentary about actors at the National in the hour before curtain and am currently listening to a BBC Radio 4 special and poked around the Google Cultural Institute exhibit and have been looking at pictures and googling names that came up during those interviews I was talking about) is that all that stuff is the stuff that made me think I wanted to be a professional actor. I mean, that is the life. Those dressing rooms! The casts! The dressers! The assistants to the ASMs! The costumes! The rehearsal rooms! The rehearsals! The plays! The playwrights! What I wouldn’t give to be one of those people being interviewed about my years at the National Theatre.

Well, I wouldn’t give up my comfortable life, it turns out, is what I wouldn’t give. And I certainly wouldn’t give up my comfortable life for a crappy life that contains a one-in-a-million shot at the job at the National. And, by the way, even the people who get that job don’t have that life for long. There are a few who get that life or something like it, sure, but those are the exceptions to the exceptions—Lisa Dwyer Hogg to pick a name at random, may become one of those faces seen in everything over years but is more likely to have to go back fairly quickly to the actual life of a working actor, being treated like shit under crappy conditions for next to nothing and lucky to get it, plus of course doing TV Ad voice work to pay the bills.

And yet… this year, now, there she is. At the National. And who knows? Maybe she will become a Julie Walters or a Brenda Blethyn or a Geraldine McEwan. They did, after all. And even if she doesn’t, this year, now, there she is. One in a million.

So while I am enjoying gorging myself on the Olivier stories and the window-banging and the rest of it, I find myself resenting it a little. Or perhaps resenting myself a little—resenting my younger self for having bought into that dream without figuring the cost or the odds, and resenting my middle-aged self for being so damned realistic.

Before I close this note, though, I have to pass along a bit out of Alan Bennett’s play The Habit of Art. It’s the end, as the somewhat shambolic rehearsal of the play-within-the-play is breaking up. The stage manager, the unsung hero of our play and of course the unsung hero of every play, is reassuring the playwright that, well, that it’ll be all right on the night, luvvie.

I worked once or twice with Ronald Eyre. Difficult man and, like all the best directors, an ex-schoolmaster. Ron knew what fear was... he’d worked at the RSC and he was here not long after it opened. The opening was, of course, disastrous. Ron said they should have moved out straight away, gone back to the Old Vic and rented the place out, made the Olivier into a skating rink, the Cottesloe a billiard hall and the Lyttleton boxing. Then after twenty-odd years of ordinary unpretentious entertainment, when it’s shabby and run-down and been purged of culture, and all the pretension had long since been beaten out of it, then with no fanfare at all they should sneak back with the occasional play and nobody need be frightened anymore.

Except of course the actors.

He was wrong, though, Ron. Because what’s knocked down the corners off the place, taken the shine off it and made it dingy and unintimidating--are plays. Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten--but plays persistent. Plays, plays, plays. The habit of art.

Fifty years is quite a habit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


So last night I unsurprisingly dreamt an NT50 dream. I had a small part in a Chekhov play (details all dreamlike and murky), and I got so absorbed in prowling around backstage that I missed my entrance.

An orderly one, ladies,

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