My Part in the History of the National Theatre

Regular readers of this blog may recall that in January 2015, I wrote a piece in this space titled A Sonnet for Sir Laurence. (See archive of this blog Jan 2015  There I described how I was inspired to write a fan letter – my only one ever – to Laurence Olivier after witnessing his thrilling portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello at Britain’s National Theatre in 1965, exactly fifty years earlier. Then, the  NT company was  playing at the Old Vic before moving to its historic venue on London’s South Bank. The letter I wrote included a short poem of fourteen lines, so I called it a sonnet. I have since discovered that there are additional rules to be observed to be officially a sonnet. But, never mind.

The front page of the miniature folio of Othello.

Shortly after sending the letter, I was pleased to receive a note from the great actor thanking me for expressing my feelings about his performance ‘so charmingly’. So impressed with his sentiments and not really sure what to do with it, I had kept Olivier’s note in a small Midget Classic copy of the play in a drawer for over fifty years. A friend even copied my sonnet on the first page of the tiny folio. (2 x 3 in).

Recently, something very exciting happened. The National Theatre  – somewhat short on material from the early days of the NT – after reading my blog asked me to submit the letter from Olivier and the miniature folio of the play to be placed in the NT archive. So, I visited the office this past week and contributed the items as well as the original ticket stubs which I had also kept.

Examining the artefacts of Othello with archivist Erin at the National Theatre

It was quite an experience. I was treated like some writer from the past . . . like Mark Twain or perhaps, Samuel Pepys. My items were carefully placed in the same container with the original annotated script that Olivier and Maggie Smith worked from under the direction of John Dexter those many years ago. I was also shown  the original poster and program of the production – which incredibly,  I still remembered – dating from 1965. Black and white stage photos of Derek Jacobi (Cassio) and Frank Finlay (Iago) brought back more memories. One photo I particularly liked was of Olivier and Smith taking a break from what must have been a dress rehearsal. They were in their 16th century Shakespearean costumes set in Venice, but each was smoking a cigarette!

The note from Olivier placed in the archive

These artefacts, including my modest contributions,  will be available to researchers and scholars for many years long after I’m gone (I’ll be 80 in April of this year). So in my nostalgia, I thought the present description would be a nice addendum to my blog of 2015, reminding subscribers of the original story and showing a few pictures taken by the NT photographer of myself depositing the items in the archive.

Interestingly, I was not even aware of the fact that the NT had an archive. But there it is in the street called The Cut, right next door to the Old Vic Theatre where we saw the legendary performance and which was the site of the NT when it began its existence under Olivier’s directorship in 1963. After holding on to these mementos for so many years, I  have now finally found a place where they will be safe. They are now a part of the history of the National Theatre which my family and so many of my friends have enjoyed over the years.

I often tell my three sons – half jokingly I think – that when I pass away, I want to be cremated and my ashes secretly spread between the seats at the National.  Now, I needn’t worry. I have become in a small way, a part of the history of this great institution.