Made especially for schools, this version of the BBC Four Arena programme examines the history and purpose of the National Theatre as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Browse content similar to The National Theatre - Learning Zone. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Here we go!
For the great firework!
People ask me,
"Do the English people want
"a national theatre?"
Well, of course, they don't.
They never want anything.
They've got a British Museum,
but they never wanted one.
They've got a National Gallery,
but they never wanted it.
But now that they've got it,
now that it stands there as a mysterious phenomenon
that came to them in some type of fashion, they quite approve of it.
It wasn't until 1963
that the long-held dream of a national theatre of Great Britain
became a reality.
Its first home was the borrowed stage of the Old Vic theatre
in London, which had been putting on legendary productions
of Shakespeare since the 1930s.
At the helm of the newly-formed National Theatre
was Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of his time.
Forming a company, helping it along, serving it, leading it -
that's the most exciting thing I think a man can do.
'If there was going to be a national theatre, Olivier would have to be
He represented the theatre
in a symbolic way.
Your Royal Highness, lords, ladies and gentlemen,
this is a joyous occasion.
The National Theatre is to be something
which the Old Vic is dedicated to,
'with Laurence, who is a passionate lover of the theatre.
'A fine actor, Laurence has got that feeling that
'we are doing something for our country, something to make
'our country more aware of itself.'
As Shakespeare is,
kind of, the spine of British playwriting,
Olivier, during that period, was the spine
of British acting. Everybody wanted to work at the National.
And it was at the Old Vic, which, itself, had this extraordinary
It was an actors' theatre,
in that it was run by the greatest actor we had.
It was not an inevitability
that it would get off the ground, by any means. Once it was
off the ground, it was not inevitable that it would survive.
That it survived, that it succeeded in the most extraordinary fashion,
that was all due to Olivier.
Olivier was able to bring the directors and the writers
and, above all, the actors.
Olivier himself directed the opening production of Hamlet in 1963,
starring Peter O'Toole.
Laurence said, "When you start the National Theatre after 300 years
"of talking about it and you open with Hamlet,
"you just put on your strongest suit of armour
"and expect everybody to take aim
"at you", which, of course, I think they did.
The following year, Olivier's own sell-out performance as Othello
was a huge critical success.
And Peter Schaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun
heralded the National's commitment
to new plays by contemporary writers,
including Harold Pinter,
Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Alan Bennett.
The Old Vic was always meant to be a temporary home, until a new theatre
could be built on the south bank of the Thames.
Olivier, constantly had to defend its cost and its severe modernist
Would you argue for it to be
given priority, for example, over hospitals and schools?
I don't think anything should be given priority over hospitals
or schools or houses, but would point out that, in Germany,
it would be given priority over all those three things.
The new building housed not one, but three, separate theatres.
It still looks like a fortress, until you get inside.
The grandeur of the Olivier is one thing.
The Lyttelton is not unlike the West End,
cos of the feeling in the theatre and the proscenium arch.
And then, the Cottesloe is like off Broadway,
so what you have got
is off Broadway, Broadway and the Metropole and Opera,
all in one building.
In 1976, the new theatre finally opened
and Laurence Olivier took to the stage that bears his name
for the first, and last, time.
By now, he'd been succeeded as director by Peter Hall,
founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company,
the National's main rival.
Peter took over the National Theatre at a difficult time,
at a time when there was a lot of political opposition to the very idea
of it. He had to be enormously
persuasive. He had to face that political opposition down
and he also had fights with
the building, which was late being delivered, the unions,
the backstage unions.
So, Peter had to face all that and he was directing plays at the same time.
It's only in retrospect
that one can say it was OK. Damn nearly wasn't.
Peter Hall was the second of five directors
who have run the National Theatre.
He was succeeded by Richard Eyre.
Well, it's wonderful to sit in the director's office
and be able to look down river to the Houses of Parliament
and also poke your head round the corner and see St Paul's.
So, it's impossible, I think, to be in that office and not feel
that you have a responsibility to reflect the feeling of a nation.
That is what the theatre exists to do.
Richard Eyre was
followed by the celebrated director, Trevor Nunn.
I had a wonderful time,
mainly because I found myself working with
such an extraordinary number of wonderful people.
The level of expertise
and of sheer excellence, in all departments, was very rare
and instantly recognisable.
You can choose to go to a theatre
where it just does one play or you can go to the National,
where you can see a constantly-changing repertoire,
all under one roof and in a way you can afford.
The first time I walked through the stage door of the National Theatre,
my life changed. I would meet people at the stage door
all the time and they'd go, "I've never been here before.
"Has this been here long?" Do you know what I mean?
And here we are -
50 years. 50 years.
Speak! Or go no further!
I am my father's spirit.
Doomed for a certain term...
..to walk the night.
In our contemporary, essentially-rational,
what would it be like
if somebody's ghost pitched up?
It would be utterly terrifying, completely unprecedented
and nobody would know what to do.
Well, actually, Shakespeare goes to a great deal of trouble
to make the appearance of this ghost exactly that.
'This ghost is unprecedented, in the lives of all the characters
'onstage and they react to the ghost as I think we would react
'if we saw a ghost.'
In other words, in Elsinore, or London, 1601 -
take your pick - ghosts do not appear.
Hamlet is, in many ways, the foundation stone
of the English theatre.
It was first performed not a mile
from where I am currently sitting,
at The Globe, in 1601.
It's been in the repertoire for 400 years.
..in this distracted goal.
-Every great actor has played Hamlet.
From the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records that youth
And observation copied there.
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter.
What a piece of wood is a man. How noble in reason.
How in faculty, in form, in moving. How express...
And now I'll do it!
Until he goes to heaven.
The one thing we can't get is what the audience in 1601 got,
which was it must have seen its own world on the stage.
We can only be voyeurs of a play like Hamlet.
We don't live within a totalitarian dictatorship, which operates
through a security system based on constant surveillance.
Shakespeare's audience was living in that world.
That's how Elizabeth I exerted power.
I've come at it with the idea that Elsinore itself
is a totally contemporary dictatorship
with a highly-developed surveillance operation -
everybody spies on everybody else.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are brought in to spy on Hamlet,
Polonius spies on Laertes.
Everybody's watching everybody else.
-Nobody is honest with everybody else.
-I will come by and by!
The major strokes of the production are in creating that world
with the security guards, which is incredibly detailed
and followed through.
There will always be people there watching,
menacing shadows in the background.
Not allowing people
to live their lives, except under pressure.
No-one trusts anybody else. No-one says what they mean.
That is especially clear in this production
because of all the cameras and the agents monitoring everything.
Ophelia, in her first scene, she is reading a book.
When her dad comes in, she hides the book.
You get the idea that everything is monitored,
what they are allowed to read, what they are allowed to listen to.
I think it's familiar to a lot of people around the world.
Originally, we were looking at potential modern parallels,
somewhere where, through murky politics,
leadership can still pass through family lines.
A world in which people don't have a sense of their own freedom or
a sense of the individual being more important than the state.
MUSIC DROWNS SPEECH
Murder and surveillance, as a wing of state policy...
..you don't have to go far east to find those.
MUSIC DROWNS SPEECH
There are such dictatorships in Europe where you can imagine
the presidency passing from one brother to another.
There is plenty to draw upon there.
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
I think the memorable Hamlets emerge in response not just to the play
but to the place in time they are happening in.
Rory's dismay is a very 21st-century dismay.
It is a dismay based on a highly-developed
But it is also based on a super sensitivity to the impossibility
in this spied upon, surveyed,
utterly un-private world.
Here is somewhere our audience will know what
we're talking about.
Bloody, bawdy villain!
Is it possible any more,
surveilled, picked apart pulled this way and that
as we are, to act truthfully?
What's really important, it seems to me,
is that the Army is central to this play.
It's something I know that we'll want to explore -
what a life spent fighting, what a life spent devoted to violence
has done to the men who are at the centre of the play
and to the women who find themselves caught up in the drama.
Jonathan, who arrived late, who I hope will be able
to talk to us at some point, was until recently
a pretty high-ranking general in the British Army.
I gave them advice on how to dress, how to wear their berets,
how to wear their clothing.
All of them took that on board and you can see them,
they all look proper soldiers.
There is one exception to that and that is Rory himself with Iago.
No matter how many times I told him about wearing his beret
slightly tilted forward or flat but certainly not tilted backwards
and do something about the knot at the back
because it's dangling down, he wouldn't.
His trousers were scruffy. They run down over his boots.
I kept saying, "You should alter that." Then I stopped saying that
because actually that is the way he is portraying the character.
Jonathan Shaw has been extremely interesting about
the military context of the play.
One of things he insists on,
is how important trust is between men in the Army.
It is quite clear that the reason Iago is able to do
what he does with Othello, is because Othello trusts him
more completely than maybe two men in civilian life would trust each other.
It's a given in the Army. You have to.
Let command and to obey in me
Shall be remorse what bloody business ever.
Military life is based on
loyalty and a code of honour amongst soldiers.
And it's from that that Iago is able to get away with what he does
that no-one would question another soldier's loyalty to his colleague.
Now art thou my lieutenant.
Their bond of friendship and mutual trust goes back years.
That is why Iago feels betrayed because he believes that
seniority, length of service should be what determines promotion.
His standing in the structures of military life was pretty low,
although he had a closeness with Othello, who was at the very top.
When passed over for promotion and having his nose rubbed in
his mediocrity, it's that trigger that snaps him into
doing something about it.
Good evening. After a weekend of doubt and uncertainty,
Mr Heath has handed in his resignation to the Queen.
# We've got five years
# Stuck on my eyes
# Five years
# What a surprise
# Five years... #
I wanted to look at the Houses of Parliament under the most strain
it's ever been under in the history of modern Britain.
That was absolutely the Parliament of 1974-79.
It was a government with not enough people to pass its laws,
it was a country in absolute turmoil economically, socially, politically.
# Five years... #
For me, politics was never something that was alienating or strange.
I think if you're going to lock people in a room for two hours
and talk to them, then it has to be important.
I feel like you've got to leave having talked about stuff
and having engaged with things that are important.
Political issues do that.
The default position of younger writers is that maybe
we don't have the right or the tools to write these big political plays
and that we should just write small plays about our own staff.
I've never believed that is true.
I don't know if any of you lot have read a newspaper this week
but apparently we, the Labour Party, are now in power.
One big problem.
It's a mathematical problem and one we definitely have to balance.
301, us, Tories, 297. Then we have the odds and sods.
Excellent. Great. Yeah, that's good. Just a little. Yeah.
The play is focused on the two whips' offices.
The Government whips' office and the Opposition whips' office.
They are the unsung heroes
of parliamentary procedure - they make it happen.
There's only three in it.
Block some of their big stuff and call a confidence vote.
How do we block them?
Our lot will be bored and demoralised.
It's going to take all we've got to keep them coming in for votes
all the time.
The other side seemed to have successfully seduced
the odds and sods.
I wanted to forget Downing Street,
to forget Whitehall,
forget anywhere where the decisions were made
and look at the engine room.
When you have a hung Parliament,
when you don't have enough members to pass your laws.
Suddenly everything becomes focused on the Whips' office.
They're the guys who literally have to get that law onto the statute
books and so the whips become the most important people in politics.
When I came into Parliament at the end of the '80s, it was
very similar to the play and in particular, the Whips' Office
was a whole world on its own, a kind of independent barony.
Parliament is like a theatre and the Whips' Office
was almost like a theatre within a theatre.
Try to act like honourable members of the House
and not football hooligans!
The political culture
when I first came into Parliament was very masculine, very male.
People were much less concerned about how they looked,
because of course, Parliament wasn't televised in those days.
There was a hard-drinking political culture
and it was the opposite of politically correct.
-Just don't feel you have to tone it down.
-Sod that! Bird in the office - we'll be cranking it up!
Do you like football?
# The love that asks no questions
# The love that stands the test of time. #
I didn't know a huge amount about the 1970s.
I was born in 1982, so I wasn't alive.
I really loved going and speaking to Members of Parliament at the time,
diving into archives, papers -
thousands and thousands of books and um, just speaking to people that were around at the time.
For me, that's the fun part of doing a political play.
Tories, we need a little bit more reaction to the vote.
This is a crucial loss for the Government, isn't it?
What's wonderful is that every time we came up with
a sort of dramatic problem that we found hard to solve, you know,
just a bit of research
and look at history would provide a really entertaining answer,
because the reality is just far more interesting that anything
anyone could make up.
# Time takes a cigarette. #
Well, I'm afraid we now think he must be dead.
For example, John Stonehouse,
when the Government's just about got enough of a majority to start
passing laws, he fakes his own death
and throws himself allegedly into a sea off Miami beach.
MUSIC: 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' by DAVID BOWIE
And then you have stories like Jeremy Thorpe,
the leader of the Liberal Party, who was accused of attempted murder,
cleared of all charges, it has to be said but he was accused of murdering his male lover.
I look at it and go, "God, how am I going to fit that into this?
That's one story of 25."
We are now in session.
Sorry to interrupt. I'd like to do the Croft. Thank you.
-You know one of those devices that holds the chest open?
-What they called?
-Chest spreader. OK.
-A set of those.
-Yeah, one of those from 1816, please.
What is extraordinary about working on it is that you realise it's timeless -
it will be here a long time after we're all gone
because it swims into focus, depending on different issues,
either in a very specific way like genetics or cloning,
or in a very, very general way, really, about, you know,
what man is capable of and what are the repercussions of that.
There's little time to explain. The simple fact is, I built a man.
-You did what?
-I built a man and succeeded in animating him.
-You mean bringing him to life?
-Yes! Yes, bringing him to life. My...
My creature. I brought him to life.
I think Mary Shelley was writing - almost without appreciating it -
a sort of creation myth for the science age.
In many cultures, there are creation myths,
but they always involve a deity, a cosmic power.
Something sets the spark of life in motion and we humans come to life.
But for the first time, Mary Shelley comes up with a creation myth
which doesn't involve a deity, doesn't involve a cosmic power,
it involves solely the skills of humankind.
And that's why I think it stays with us now,
because God doesn't play a very big part in our rationalisation
about the world we live in and what we're going to do with it
and the extent to which we're destroying it as we patently are.
Mary Shelley's a very literate, highly educated
young 18-19-year-old woman when she comes to it and the book is stuffed
full of ideas which seem to me to remain very pertinent to us now.
How does it feel to be in love?
It...it...it...feels like all the life is...
bubbling up inside me and spinning from my mouth.
It feels like my lungs are on fire and my heart is a hammer!
It feels like I can do anything in the world!
The most important thing about the production, hopefully,
is that it gives the creature a voice
and I think a lot of people coming to it won't know the novel
but they will know the movies, which robs him of his voice, really.
The movies just waded in there and robbed him of his voice
straightaway and yet that is the most extraordinary thing
and so Nick's approach was to begin with the point of view of the creature.
Arms flickering around, a bit of legs and then finding...
What we've tried to do is begin with a being fresh from birth
with no language.
We see him acquire language, we see him acquire intellect and then
by the end of the play, we allow him a very high level of articulacy
and that was...really was one of the reasons that we wanted to do it,
was because we'd never seen this creature given a voice,
both to justify himself and to question his creator and say,
"Why did you do this?"
You abandoned me.
-You know my name.
That's the fantastic thing about this story is the relationship
between father and son, master and slave, creature and creator.
What's fascinating is seeing something come alive
that's in a 30-year-old form and have to re-educate itself.
I looked at stroke victims in recovery,
I looked at people who'd had severe injuries both in wars or car
crashes trying to re-educate their limbs and their bodies
and when you see that happening, the amount of vulnerability.
It gets tired. Yes. It gets tired.
It's a very endearing thing to watch evolve. You really care for him.
-You know, there's a lot of my two-year-old in the way...
-Yes. Buster's been a big influence.
..you know, that the creature...
You know, it's...
It's a blank canvas as a body but the brain works extremely fast.
It's a fully grown brain so it's absorbing everything super quick.
All the learning comes really quickly.
Frankenstein eventually became the archetype of the mad scientist
and what happens when science overreaches itself
but what's interesting in the story of Frankenstein is that this
becomes applied to the idea of creating people.
And in some ways, that's something that could be
seen as the ultimate unnatural act and it raises all sorts
of quite specific questions about the status of the created
being - whether or not, for example, Frankenstein's creature has a soul
and what that means.
God doesn't really figure in Frankenstein.
The human creates life
and I think that's one of the reasons why it has
so much relevance for us now, because we look at the world
and we see what we've done to it, and we're worried and that's
very much the position that Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, is in.
Made specially for schools, this version of the BBC Four Arena programme examines the history and purpose of the National Theatre as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. A compilation of short films explores not only how the National Theatre came about, but also looks at its relevance today.
Short films on Othello and Hamlet, using both rehearsal and performance footage, consider how the National Theatre takes a contemporary approach to Shakespeare's work.
The importance of attracting new audiences is explored in a short film about Frankenstein. Using rehearsal and performance footage from their version of Frankenstein, the film also considers how they take a classic text to create theatrical events aimed at attracting young audiences.
There is also a film about the staging of This House, a political, historically accurate play that turns a mirror on contemporary politics. James Graham explains how he researched and wrote the play.