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Film Review: National Theatre's 50 years of brilliant plays and actors

National Theatre 50 Years on Stage
National Theatre Live
In Cinemas November 28 – December 18

To mark 50 years of the National Theatre in London the company has produced an evening extravaganza of most of the UK’s dramatic talent performing in segments from some of the great plays it has staged.

There is a cast of 100 actors performing 50 different dramatic events from brief solo performance to some with a large back up cast.

Among the plays are some of the great iconic plays of the 20th and 21st-first  centuries such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The History Boys, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Copenhagen, Amadeus and National Health.

There are also sequences from Shakespeare – Richard II, King Lear and Hamlet. Hamlet was the opening play at the Old Vic 50 years ago and again headlines this production using film of Laurence Olivier who was the theatre's first Hamlet and Derek Jacobi doing one of the soliloquies.

Other greats include Benedict Cumberbach, Dame Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Rory Kinnear, Helen Mirren and Dame Maggie Smith.

This is not just a history of the National Theatre though it is also a potted history of British drama, providing a snapshot of how drama has developed through its comedies and socially focused drams.

There are also reflections on drama and theatre with the previous directors of the NT speaking about its history. Michael Gambon  and Derek Jacobi reflect on playing Pinter parts and how they were still perplexed by what they were supposed to be doing.

Some of the individual performances are extraordinary in their power. Joan Plowright (Olivier’s second wife) delivers a passage from Shaws’s St Joan 50 years after she first performed it. Not only does she evince all the emotion of a young woman reflecting on her lack of freedom, she also seems to reflect on her own lost youth.

Film of a young Maggie Smith in Hay Fever shows she has lost none of the wicked sense of humour she displays as the dowager in Downton Abbey.

Helen Mirren gives a great performance along with Tim Piggot-Smith in the murder scene in O’Neill’s Mourning becomes Electra.

There are a few unexpected works, such as a scene from Guys and Dolls and a brilliant little number with Judi Dench singing Send in The Clowns from A Little Night Music.

The film is a glorious celebration of drama and outstanding acting. The great disappointment is that so many of the scenes are fleeting and one wishes each of them would continue and that we would get the whole play.

More by John Daly-Peoples