Irving Wardle – now in his 85th year – was a theatre critic from 1958 to 1995: for 26 of those 37 years he was the Times Chief Theatre Critic. He was Tynan’s deputy, Pinter’s friend, a playwright himself, and is still writing about theatre. He saw the birth of the National Theatre in 1963 and was an honoured guest at Saturday’s immense gala night. This new and unfledged website, home to one of his Times successors (though I am one whose tenure sadly lasted only three and a half years, not 26) is honoured to host Irving Wardle’s exclusive impressions of Saturday night….A return to the critic’s chair from one of the art’s doyens.
IRVING WARDLE WRITES:
“Who’s there?”: were the first words spoken on the NT stage in its opening
production of Hamlet in 1963. The 50th birthday show opened with the same scene and the same words. Who’s there?
Well, the Queen wasn’t, and nor were Peter O’Toole (the first Hamlet) or Peter Hall. Otherwise, looking round the house, it seemed that everyone else had turned up, from Joan Plowright, still carrying the torch for Laurence Olivier to the massed crowd of backstage staff who overwhelmed the actotrs at the final lineup amid a glittering cloudburst of golden leaves.
In between it was pretty much bliss all the way. Nicholas Hytner and his team had followed Peter Hall’s advice when he said that what such occasions need is “the obvious, very well done.” From the NT’s 800 past productions we got through an astonishing 38 items in two and a quarter hours. No interval, no commentary; just the dramatic work switching between staged and film archive extracts. A tight structure that somehow allowed everything to breathe. Even the instantaneous design – single Corinthian column for Judi Dench’s Cleopatra, or an elaborate cabinet of priceless china (for No Man’s Land) seemed visually sumptuous rather than austere. While the stage events, no mattter how brief, came over as if they had all the time in the world.
There were two kinds of pleasure: authentic presentation of past events and seeing them recreated by other actors. For instance there was Alex Jennings back as Professor Higgins, turning “The Rain in Spain” into a bullfight fought with gramophone horns. Also James Corden reprising his Timms in The History Boys – with Alan Bennett himself making the French brothel lesson more riotous than it had been when Richard Griffiths was taking the class. Judi Dench returned twice to her past repertory with Cleopatra’s last speech in praise of Antony, and with Desiree Arnfeldt’s “Send in the Clowns”. Both made time stand still and brought the house down. As did Helen Mirren, re-enacting the murder of Ezra from Mouring Becomes Electra.
Writing about these scenes has the effect of turning them into a catalogue, which is directly opposite to the effect they had in performance : each had time to develop its own life.
In the authenticity stakes, the undoubted killer was a clip from Maggie Smith’s Myra in the 1864 Hay Fever, engaged in arrogantly teasing dalliance with Anthony Nicholls before collapsing as a boneless deadweight into his arms To comic genius on that level, one responds with as much awe as laughter.
For the record there were some new performances that made you long to see them in full-scale revivals. Top of that list for me was Ralph Fiennes as the rogue South African newspaper proprietor in Pravda, obsequiously fawning on the management before launching his reign on terror on the newsroom. But the biggest show-stoppers were all from muscals: Jerry Springer, My Fair Lady, and Clive Rowe leading a marvellously drilled gangster congregation in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” But, then, as Trevor Nunn rightly pointed out, “the NT is very well served by doing the whole spectrum.”
Not a bad motto for the next 50 years.