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National Theatre book reminds me of Richard Eyre's wise words

My fireside reading this past wee while has been the mighty 1000-page tome by Daniel Rosenthal from theatrical publishers Oberon Books that recounts the story of The National Theatre, marking its 50th anniversary this year.

Rosenthal has done a very thorough job, although perhaps more so on the political and reportage dimension of a riveting tale than on the artistic and critical view.

In its five decades, and with Rufus Norris announced as the successor to Nicholas Hytner, the National has had just five directors since founder Laurence Olivier argued it into existence, and my particular interest and personal experience lay in reading of the era of Richard Eyre, from 1988 to 1997, although it is arguably best documented by the man himself, who has written more than any of the others.

The sagas of his accession and succession were both long-running news stories, which Rosenthal documents with precision and style, and it is interesting to have those presented in the context of the list of productions in an appendix. Clearly burdened by the responsibilities of administration, Eyre's stage work in his first years was limited to a regular Shakespeare and the celebrated David Hare trilogy of Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and Absence Of War. It is only once he can see the light at the end of the tunnel beyond the NT job that he cuts loose and directs a wider range of work.

It was at the end of his tenure that I visited Eyre in his Southbank eyrie to interview him before he visited Glasgow to deliver the inaugural, and as it turned out only, Bill Brown Lecture, commemorating the recently deceased chairman of Scottish Television and the Scottish Arts Council, and sponsored by The Herald. It was a new flagship event for Glasgow's Mayfest and held in the splendour of Glasgow University's Bute Hall, but sadly the good ship Mayfest went down with all hands just six weeks later under the weight of a £130,000 debt (which seems an oddly trifling amount now).

Eyre was not only a charming interviewee, he also gave a very fine address on the topic of a Scottish National Theatre, beginning with the observation that it was an admission of defeat for him, as director of the British model, to concede the necessity for one, and concluding: "If you are to start a national theatre, let it be defined by its work on its stages and not by its architecture, and let the work on its stages be defined by its quality not by its nationality. Ensure that its funding is sufficient, but that its sufficiency is not at the expense of any existing theatre company." I was clearly not the only one listening attentively.

It will, perhaps, be no bad thing if the swifter turnover of directors of the National Theatre of Scotland that has been established by Vicky Featherstone's handover to Laurie Sansom becomes the model north of the border, in the same way that not being lumbered with an architectural edifice has been an asset to the newer national company's creativity. The coming into being of the NTS may have had as many "False Dawns" as Rosenthal recounts in the opening chapter of The National Theatre Story, but its early political and artistic history had been less troubled, and distinguished by many more triumphs than artistic tragedies. Unlike the much-missed Mayfest, you would bet on it being around to have a Scots theatrical historian document its Golden Jubilee.

The Scottish national company that has had one of those this year is, of course, Scottish Opera. It too has a handsome 50th anniversary book, but the 288-page "treasure trove of pictures, anecdotes and reminiscences gleaned over five decades" lacks any real analytical content. Some might say that its vexed history, and current state, more than merited that.

The National Theatre Story by Daniel Rosenthal is published by Oberon Books at £35. The NT production of War Horse opens at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre on January 22 and runs until February 15

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