‘It was sheer hell’: Derek Jacobi on the chaotic birth of the National Theatre

Rosemary Harris and Peter O'Toole in Hamlet, 1963
Rosemary Harris and Peter O'Toole in Hamlet, 1963 - Angus McBean courtesy of National Theatre

The evolution of the National Theatre was so protracted that in the programme for its inaugural production – Hamlet at the Old Vic on October 22, 1963 – three pages were devoted to a précis of the company’s origin story.

This bullet-point summary informed audiences that an entire century had elapsed between its conception – “The first concrete suggestion for the establishment of a National Theatre is put forward by Effingham Wilson, a London publisher” – in 1848, and its “birth” in 1949, when the National Theatre Act committed £1 million of public money to the construction of an actual National Theatre building.

Another 13 years of political inertia and theatrical infighting followed, before, in August 1962, the appointment as NT Director of Sir Laurence Olivier, then 55 and running the newly opened Chichester Festival Theatre. Olivier’s NT Company would perform at the refurbished, 900-seat Old Vic, until the completion – optimistically scheduled for 1967 – of its purpose-built home on the South Bank, close to the Festival Hall. The Company’s spartan administrative base was a row of Nissen huts on Aquinas Street, a short walk from the Old Vic.

That long history of abortive plans helps explain why, shortly before accepting the job, Olivier told the other leading contender, Peter Hall, boss of the Royal Shakespeare Company, that NT Director might be “the most tiresome, awkward, embarrassing, forever-compromise, never-right, thankless f—ing post anyone could possibly be fool enough to take on.”

Olivier brought members of his Chichester ensemble into his first NT Company, whose names he informally listed under two headings. “Renowned” included himself, his wife, Joan Plowright, Sir Michael Redgrave (Claudius in Hamlet), Colin Blakely, Tom Courtenay, Rosemary Harris (Ophelia) and Maggie Smith. “To Be Renowned”, meanwhile, included Frank Finlay (First Gravedigger), Michael Gambon (walking on as Courtier, Soldier and Servant), Derek Jacobi (Laertes) and Robert Stephens (Horatio).

‘It was quite a night’: Derek Jacobi played Laertes in the NT’s Hamlet when he was 24
‘It was quite a night’: Derek Jacobi played Laertes in the NT’s Hamlet when he was 24 - Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

More formally, all the actors were assigned to either A Company or B Company, a division that facilitated the casting and simultaneous rehearsal of NT productions that would play in repertoire. Olivier placed himself in “B”. “There were some very big names, of which he was the biggest,” recalls Jacobi, aged 24 when he joined the NT. “He was very keen on it not being star-driven, so putting himself in the ‘B’ team was a very clever political gesture to the youngsters.”

Olivier made one exception to this anti-star, ensemble ethos. Peter O’Toole, a celebrated stage Hamlet in 1957, and now, thanks to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a global movie idol, would give just 27 performances as the NT’s Prince of Denmark, for 30 guineas a show (about £500 today), before flying off to East Asia to shoot the title role in a Hollywood adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Olivier had triumphed on stage as Hamlet in 1937 and won Best Actor and Best Picture Oscars for his 1948 film version, but the play no longer excited him, as he explained in a letter to Desmond Heeley, the NT Hamlet’s costume designer, in May 1963: “It is terribly difficult to feel glossy or new when one has done a thing more than once, and then made a film – one really does not feel one has much more to say.”

The Hamlet run had sold out in advance, and such was the weight of public and media expectation that, interviewing O’Toole in the Daily Mail, Barry Norman wrote: “The responsibility, the necessity for success, which rest on him and Olivier, are frightening to contemplate.”

Laurence Olivier, who went on to direct the NT's 1963 production, in the 1948 film adaptation of Hamlet
Laurence Olivier, who went on to direct the NT's 1963 production, in the 1948 film adaptation of Hamlet - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Jacobi, who had played Hamlet at school and at Cambridge University, recalls the seven weeks of rehearsals as “a time of learning: I hadn’t been to drama school. I was surrounded by people who knew infinitely more than I did. And were very generous with their talent. I was doing my stuff, admiring them – kind of worshipping them.”

Rosemary Harris, on an extended leave of absence from her then-husband Ellis Rabb’s US theatre company, the Association of Producing Artists, remembers that Olivier, despite facing intense administrative and artistic pressures, “was always so good at making us all laugh”. Their one difficult moment came as they worked on Ophelia’s speech to Polonius, recalling Hamlet visiting her “with his doublet all unbrac’d”.

Harris asked Olivier if she and O’Toole could improvise the encounter, “so that I would have something in my mind to actually refer back to. Sir Laurence thought that was ridiculous and said ‘Go and see the film’.” On screen, we see Olivier’s Hamlet approaching Ophelia (Jean Simmons), who delivers her lines in voice-over. Deeply hurt, Harris wrote Olivier a letter suggesting that, if he had all the answers before she’d even asked valid questions, she should withdraw. When he read the letter the next morning, he was “wonderfully” apologetic.

Alterations to the Old Vic had fallen badly behind schedule, and Max Adrian (Polonius) characterised the final days of on-stage rehearsal as “sheer hell… The whole place… littered with rubble and mortar.”

Peter O'Toole as Hamlet in 1963
Peter O'Toole as Hamlet in 1963 - Angus McBean

Opening night saw the Old Vic foyer crowded with celebrities, including Lionel Bart, Leslie Caron and James Mason. “All the glitterati were there,” says Jacobi. After the four-and-a-half hour performance, actors and guests partied in the stalls and dress circle. “I was boring the a--- off everybody,” adds Jacobi, “saying ‘This is the best night of my life. I’ve just played Laertes to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier, and also it’s my 25th birthday!’

“Eventually, silence was called for and Shirley Bassey came on stage and sang Happy Birthday – merely to shut me up. It was quite a night.”

The next morning, the headline above Bernard Levin’s Daily Mail review – “After a wait of 100 years this will do for a start” – typified a set of what Jacobi calls “tepid” notices, which “stunned” the company – although this newspaper’s WA Darlington praised O’Toole for “a passion and a tenderness which puts him in the first rank of the Hamlets of our times.”

The short run was plagued by technical glitches. On the third night, the new, electrically operated curtain would not rise, obliging Olivier to come on stage and apologise for what became a 25-minute delay. The mechanical revolve that spun Sean Kenny’s abstract set (one side representing the Elsinore ramparts, the other castle interiors) broke down repeatedly.

Harris, after reprising her role as Ilyena in Olivier’s production of Uncle Vanya (an import from Chichester) and appearing in Samuel Beckett’s Play, left the NT in August 1964 to rejoin the Association of Producing Artists. She retains “nothing but admiration and love for Sir Laurence”, and treasures a framed Desmond Heeley sketch for one of her Ophelia costumes.

Derek Jacobi in Hamlet at the Old Vic, 1979
Derek Jacobi in a 1979 production of Hamlet at the Old Vic - Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

Jacobi stayed with the National until 1971, his notable credits including the premiere of Peter Shaffer’s farce, Black Comedy (1965), and – after he had written to Olivier asking for more substantial roles (“A plea for survival as a major actor, which I still believe it’s possible for me to be”) – the lead in Simon Gray’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1970).

Olivier’s NT tenure featured far better received examples of his directing prowess than Hamlet, notably Three Sisters in 1967, and his final glories as a stage actor, including Othello (1964), The Dance of Death (1967) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1971). But even his astonishing talent and resilience could not, in one key respect, overcome the longstanding “curse” of National Theatre plans deferred. When he handed the Company over to Peter Hall in November 1973, the NT building originally expected to open in 1967 was still three years away from completion.

Daniel Rosenthal is the author of The National Theatre Story

The 20 greatest National Theatre plays of all time

by Dominic Cavendish

20. Hay Fever (1964)

The first production at the National Theatre to be written and directed by a living playwright. Leading the charge was Edith Evans as Judith Bliss, with Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith in the acclaimed mix. After the 1956 revolution of Look Back in Anger, this landmark revival of Noel Coward’s 1925 comedy saw him lastingly rehabilitated.

19. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1971)

Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece was entrusted to actor turned director Michael Blakemore and was dominated by Laurence Olivier in his last major role for the company, playing the fading major actor James Tyrone; Constance Cummings was his morphine-addled wife. “We seem to be eavesdropping on life itself,” wrote the critic Michael Billington.

18. The Effect (2012)

Lucy Prebble’s riveting play of ideas and emotions saw Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill play drug trial volunteers who become unsure whether their feelings for each other are the real thing or pharma-induced.

17. Betrayal  (1978)

Penelope Wilton and Michael Gambon in Betrayal, 1978
Penelope Wilton and Michael Gambon in Betrayal, 1978 - Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

Another Pinter masterpiece – albeit under-appreciated at the time – in which the action ingeniously began in the present and proceeded to go back in time to the source of adultery. Michael Gambon played Jerry, Penelope Wilton was Emma and Daniel Massey Robert in a work inspired by Pinter’s extramarital affair with BBC TV presenter Joan Bakewell.

16. Barber Shop Chronicles (2017)

Inua Ellams’s feelgood and pin-sharp drama, exploring masculinity and migration by cutting between six barbershops, from London to Lagos, over the course of a day, ranged the audience round a character-shifting ensemble. It furthered the melting-pot, expansive instincts of the Rufus Norris years.

15. The Mysteries (1977-1985)

Tony Harrison refashioned the York medieval mystery plays with earthy lyricism, and director Bill Bryden used a promenade approach to achieve an engaged and euphoric communality. Simon Callow stated: “It was like nothing that had been seen on the British stage.. for some centuries.” The project culminated in an acclaimed 12-hour trilogy in 1985.

14. The Merchant of Venice (1999)

Mark Umbers and Ceri Ann Gregory in The Merchant of Venice, 1999
Mark Umbers and Ceri Ann Gregory in The Merchant of Venice, 1999 - National Theatre

Shifting the action to a Thirties ambience heavy with anti-Semitic threat, Trevor Nunn’s directorial meticulousness combined with Henry Goodman’s subtle, complex reading of Shylock to produce a definitive production of a difficult play.

13. Angels in America (1992-3)

Tony Kushner’s two-part, mind-expanding epic, looking at the political state of the US against the backdrop of Communism’s collapse and personal relationships in extremis amid the Aids epidemic. Declan Donnellan’s production served this often hallucinogenic tour de force with spell-binding theatrical elan.

12. Medea (2014)

Arguably the late Helen McCrory’s finest hour; she was mesmerising as Euripides’ spurned wife and mother, prowling the stage like a caged animal in Carrie Cracknell’s visceral production.

11. No Man’s Land (1975)

Harold Pinter’s elusive, tragicomic masterpiece was premiered to perfection with the casting of John Gielgud as Spooner, the affluent, alcoholic man of letters and Ralph Richardson as Hirst, the down-at-heel poet who comes a-visiting. The play proved a major hit, and transferred to the West End.

10. Small Island (2019)

Leah Harvey performing in Small Island, 2019
Leah Harvey performing in Small Island, 2019 - Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Entering the annals as a defining NT production, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation compressed Andrea Levy’s complex novel of wartime upheaval and postwar, Windrush-generation migration into a gripping three-hour state-of-the-nation epic. Rufus Norris directed, with unforced flair.

9.  Antony and Cleopatra (1987)

The chance to see Judi Dench (who had her misgivings about playing Cleo but was queenly perfection) and Anthony Hopkins as the fading love-struck warrior in one of Shakespeare’s most dynamic pairings delivered on its headline-grabbing promise. Sadly, it was one of Hopkins’s last theatrical hurrahs. Peter Hall directed.

8. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, 1967
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, 1967 - Anthony Crickmay/ National Theatre

Tom Stoppard’s succes fou, the dazzling re-imagining of Hamlet’s bit-players as a Beckettian double-act. It had divided the critics at the Edinburgh Fringe, but, recast at the Old Vic – there were awed raves. The rest is history.

7. Racing Demon (1990)

The first (and best) of David Hare’s state of the nation trilogy looking at institutions, which continued with Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War. Oliver Ford Davies brought a numinous anguish to the role of a well-meaning vicar, whose virtuous toil comes up against Church of England politicking. Richard Eyre directed.

6. War Horse (2007)

Craig Leo and Luke Treadaway in the National Theatre's production of War Horse, 2007
Craig Leo and Luke Treadaway in the National Theatre's production of War Horse, 2007 - Simon Annand/ National Theatre

Nick Stafford’s potent adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel about the equine experience of the First World War, brought to life using the elaborate contraptions of Handspring puppet company, proved an unexpected sensation (and theatrical war horse) and even harnessed the attention of the late Queen.

5. Amadeus (1979)

“It’s rare that you know something is going to be a classic when you are still working on it,” recalled Felicity Kendal, who played Constanze, wife of the vulgar-talking, divinely inspired “Wolfie” in Peter Shaffer’s account of the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart. Opposite Simon Callow, Paul Scofield was blistering as the vengefully mediocre court composer. Peter Hall directed.

4. The History Boys (2004)

Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour in The History Boys, 2004
Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour in The History Boys, 2004 - Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

This warm, funny, touching account of bright grammar schoolboys in the 1980s prepping for Oxbridge was a runaway Alan Bennett triumph, sealing the deal on Nick Hytner’s tenure. Their liberal-minded, touchy-feely English teacher Hector was beautifully incarnated by Richard Griffiths, with a posse of fresh-faces making waves, including Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Russell Tovey.

3. An Inspector Calls (1992)

Rarely have a director and designer worked on a classic to more radically revealing effect than when Stephen Daldry joined Ian MacNeil to revitalise JB Priestley’s socially conscious thriller of 1945, locating the Edwardian action in an outsized doll’s house planted in a Blitz-blighted street. The mysterious Inspector Goole was toweringly played by Kenneth Cranham.

2. Guys and Dolls (1982)

Richard Eyre’s electrifying account of the 1950 Loesser classic, initially starring Bob Hoskins as Nathan and Julia McKenzie as Adelaide, blew everyone away with its confidence and chutzpah. It ran for almost four years. Peter Hall later stated: “I think Guys and Dolls is one of the best things the National has done.”

1. Arcadia (1993)

Rufus Sewell and  Emma Fielding performing in Arcadia, 1993
Rufus Sewell and Emma Fielding performing in Arcadia, 1993 - Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

Tom Stoppard’s country house drama has guaranteed his place in the pantheon. Shuttling between 1809–1812 and the present, the play collides the heady anticipation of one era against the historical investigations of the other, fusing witty erudition on chaos theory, landscape gardening, biography, Romanticism and the human heart. Star turns from Rufus Sewell, Felicity Kendal, Bill Nighy and others left the Telegraph’s critic Charles Spencer convinced that he had “witnessed a masterpiece”.