In 1879 the Royal Shakespeare Company was founded in Stratford and known as the New Shakespeare Company. There was still no building in the capital city to act as a ‘National’ theatre.
In 1948 the London County Council passed a ‘National Theatre Act’ in Parliament, and a site on London’s Southbank next to the Royal Festival Hall was allocated for the project. Funding issues continued to disrupt the venture, with the Government seeming reluctant to sponsor another public funded arts body, in addition to the RSC, Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic.
It took until 1962 for construction plans to be agreed, when the National Theatre Company was formed. In the interim the Old Vic was to be leased, with the new company remaining there until 1976 when the South Bank venue was finally completed. The first production was Hamlet opening on October 22nd 1963 and staring Peter O’Toole.
Lord Laurence Olivier was the first Artistic Director of the National Theatre Company and had been a figurehead of the project from the very beginning. At the time he was one of the greatest stage and film actors, appearing in famous film adaptations of Shakespeare plays, such as the 1944 War-time film of Henry V which acted as a vital piece of propaganda, creating support for the war and boosting national spirit. His production of Hamlet was the inaugural production by the National Theatre Company During his time with the company he produced both contemporary plays and revivals of classic and lesser known Shakespeare plays, using the finest new actors in the country. Highlights included:
- Hamlet, directed by Olivier, starring Peter O’Toole as Hamlet and Michael Redgrave as Claudius (1963).
- Othello, directed by John Dexter, with Laurence Olivier ‘blacking up’ in the title role alongside Maggie Smith as Desdemona (1964).
- The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jonathan Miller, with Laurence Olivier as Shylock and Joan Plowright (Olivier’s later wife) as Portia (1970)
- Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Ingmar Bergman, with Maggie Smith as Hedda (1970)
- Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, starring Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone (1971)
After Olivier retired from the position, Peter Hall took on the post as Artistic Director building on the venue’s many successes but continuing to develop in terms of repertoire. Hall’s experience stemmed from running the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford where he helped to develop the Royal Shakespeare Company. His work at the National lasted the longest term of any of the Artistic Directors, and saw more new writing especially from America, including the first musical to be performed by the company under the helm of Richard Eyre. Notable productions during Peter Hall’s time included:
- The Tempest starring John Gielgud as Prospero (1974).
- Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, directed by Peter Hall, with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow (1979–80)
- Guys and Dolls, directed by Richard Eyre, starring Bob Hoskins, Julia McKenzie, and Julie Covington (1982)
- Antony and Cleopatra directed by Peter Hall, with Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench (1987)
After working as an associate director for the National Theatre, Richard Eyre took over as Artistic Director in 1988. Having worked extensively in large regional theatres, Eyre was well equipped to meet the demands of the new position. He accounts his time at the National in his diaries during the time which are called ‘National Service’ and describe the changing face of the theatre alongside the changing political face of Britain up until Labour’s landslide election in 1997. Eyre’s most significant production was Hamlet staring Ian Charleson, which won multiple awards and raised the profile of the popular actor who died of AIDS in 1990. After Eyre’s success with Guys and Dolls the National opened it’s doors to more musical theatre pieces, including many works by American composer Stephen Sondheim, including Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music. Highlights throughout this period included:
- Hamlet, starring Ian Charleson, directed by Richard Eyre (1989)
- Richard III starring Ian McKellen, directed by Richard Eyre (1990)
- Angels in America by Tony Kushner, directed by Declan Donnellan (1991–92)
- Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, directed by Declan Donnellan (1993)
Trevor Nunn took the Theatre into the dawn of a new Britain, and as a financial supporter of the Labour Party he seemed to be the right person for the job. As the venue had to justify the public money spent on it more than ever before, the program was forced to become more populist and more diverse. Trevor Nunn’s experience with large scale musical theatre pieces during the 1980s such as Les Miserables and Cats allowed him to use these connections to present West End style musicals, with revivals of classics such as Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific and My Fair Lady all throughout his time. Highlights throughout the period included
- Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Maureen Lipman and Hugh Jackman (1998)
- The Merchant of Venice directed by Trevor Nunn, with Henry Goodman (1999)
- Honk!, Winner of the 2000 Olivier Award for Best Musical (1999)
- The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare directed by Nicholas Hytner, with Alex Jennings (2001)
- The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy by Tom Stoppard, comprising: Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage, directed by Trevor Nunn (2002)
- Anything Goes by Cole Porter, directed by Trevor Nunn, starring John Barrowman and Sally Ann Triplett (2002)
Nicholas Hytner took over the role in 2003 taking the company in a new direction. Adapting to modern changes Hytner introduced a partnership with Travelex to offer £10 tickets to selected sponsored performances. Over the past two years Hytner has developed the NT:LIVE concept, filming selected productions at the theatre, which are then beamed around the world to cinema venues. As well as broadening accessibility this move continued to globalise the branding, increasing financial support in the most difficult of times. Many productions under Hytner have transferred to the West End and Broadway, including The History Boys and War Horse with many also being turned into blockbuster films. Recent highlights have included:
- Jerry Springer: The Opera, by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas (2003)
- His Dark Materials, a two-part adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel directed by Hytner starring Anna Maxwell Martin (2003)
- The History Boys by Alan Bennett directed by Nicholas Hytner starring Richard Griffiths (2004)
- War Horse based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, presented in association with Handspring (2007–2009)
- The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennet, Richard Griffiths (2010)