The NT at 50: Five years ago, Robert Butler spent a month at this vibrant institution and saw it getting bigger, busier and happier

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008

ONE SUNDAY IN September you could stroll along the Thames from the London Eye, past street entertainers pretending to be statues and queues for organic slow-cooked pork, secondhand-book browsers and skateboarders doing fliptricks, until you reached the National Theatre and a statue of Laurence Olivier.

When the National opened here in 1976, in an area badly hit by the Blitz, you would have had to stop at this point—at a wharf and a warehouse used by the Daily Mail. Now you can continue east to Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern and the steely curves of Norman Foster’s City Hall. There have been many changes at the National over 32 years, but the biggest has been in the location. The stretch of riverbank that runs from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, taking in the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the British Film Institute and the Hayward Gallery, now has an annual footfall of 19m people. That makes it London’s high street for the arts and the National one of its flagship stores.

The quaint statue of Olivier as Hamlet, unveiled for his centennial last year, stares grandly at the hilt of his outstretched sword. If he were to lower his gaze on this particular afternoon, he would see a crowd sunbathing on deckchairs surrounded by buggies, scooters, sandwiches, bottled water and Sunday papers, on an Astroturf lawn, by a giant three-piece suite, also covered in Astroturf. A tent showing “Le Grand Peep Show” features two mime artists in black bodysuits performing courtship rituals to rinky-dinky music.

Nicholas Hytner and Nick StarrInto this almost seaside atmosphere step two men, both 50-ish, in untucked shirts, jeans and trainers, beaming proprietorially. The slighter, wirier one is the latest of Olivier’s successors, Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National; the dark-haired one is Nick Starr, the executive director (both pictured). The place is open on a Sunday for the first time ever, after years of negotiation with the unions.

The National has been called a castle, a cathedral, a temple of art, a palace of culture and a nuclear-power station (Prince Charles’s verdict). A new epithet surfaced this morning in one of the papers lying on the fake grass. Hytner had written an article to mark the Sunday opening. “I sometimes regret that we are no longer at each other’s throats as we were during the furious theatrical battles of the 1950s and 1960s,” he wrote. “If the ideological missing, what has replaced it is the vitality of the carnival.”

To recapture the flavour of those early days at the National, you have only to walk a few yards to the theatre bookshop and dig out the diaries of Olivier’s immediate successor, Peter Hall. Under “National Theatre” in the index, you’ll find heart-sinking entries for “delays and building problems”, “financial problems”, “press attacks” and even “strikes”. In those embattled years actors had to cross picket lines; Hall stood on a table at a press conference to attack the government and threaten to close a theatre; and one of his directors, Michael Bogdanov, faced a private prosecution and possible imprisonment under the Sexual Offences Act for a scene in Howard Brenton’s “Romans in Britain”.

Puritans have had a unique relationship with British theatres. In the 1600s they closed them down; in the 1960s and 1970s they designed and ran them. Hytner has called the National Theatre’s architect Denys Lasdun “a puritan maniac or a maniacal puritan”. He means it admiringly. When the National was planned, in the 1960s, Lasdun had never designed a theatre, but he wowed the selection panel with the remark that “the essence of designing a theatre is a spiritual one.” His modernist vision involved stacking concrete horizontals like geological strata around two central towers. The earnest mood of the time can be sensed in the gritty stencilled NT logo (which survives, just) and the democratic way every actor’s name was listed on the poster in alphabetical order (which doesn’t survive). The National was a place, Alan Bennett has remarked, where everything was done with capital letters: “Art. Theatre. It’s never just a play.”

That’s the biggest change Olivier would notice: the mood is informal and lower-case. In the afternoon sunshine, the two Nicks chat to a man in a stripy shirt and loud sunglasses who runs Watch This Space, a programme of 200-plus outdoor events. Last year the 26 productions in the National’s three main theatres were seen by more than 900,000 people; 170,000 of those were paying just £10 ($15) under the Travelex scheme (the National takes around £15m at the box office, and receives an Arts Council subsidy of £18m). There were 300 music events in the foyer, 80 platform talks, 80 events on the Deck, a corporate-entertainment venue on one of the terraces, plus midnight performances, a late-night green room with resident DJs, 15 exhibitions, and backstage tours taken by 20,000 people. Add to that three bookshops, a restaurant, four cafés and seven bars. The mood is caught every night by the LED lights that transform the concrete exterior into a winning display of orange, purple, blue and green.

Many of the activities have been going on in some form for years, but only now, as they reach a critical mass, are they changing the National’s idea of itself. What none of those enjoying the sunshine could know is that the two Nicks plan to take the carnival spirit, or as they call it “the big hello”, to a new and surprising level: one that will change the building, the neighbourhood, and the entire reach of the work they do.