Olivier’s National opened in 1963, with summer seasons in Chichester. In these letters, painstakingly located by Daniel Rosenthal in scattered archives and private holdings, we can chart the way Olivier imposed his will on everyone around him... If the artistic temperament abounds, there are lighter moments, in what I maintain is the best book on the performing arts to have been published in years.
...Daniel Rosenthal’s absorbing collection of letters... But sometimes the natural ellipses of letters are less intriguing than tantalising... Still, the stuff is rich: in disagreements, descriptions and analyses... Alongside the dreaming is precision and intensity. Peters Hall and Shaffer wrangle painfully and affectionately... A striking correspondence centres on the technical complications involved in staging Alan Ayckbourn’s water-logged play Upstream... Elsewhere, it is turns of phrase and startling insights that grip... Letters catch thoughts and feelings on the wing. Then buff them up. As theatre should.
It is its glimpses of personal qualities that make the book so riveting. We obviously expected Noël Coward (“your loving old Noelie”) to be flippantly brave about disappointments, and John Osborne to be a terrible moaner about tickets and the box office lady not knowing his name. As for his “It is now war!” telegram to the mellow and civil critic Irving Wardle, it is a classic. We know that Sir Peter Hall could breathe fire as well as honey and are curiously gratified when he snaps back at a furious Simon Gray, whose play didn’t run as long as he’d hoped. “I found your letter”, says Hall, “one of the most unfair, discourteous and belligerent I have ever received (and I have received a few).” They made it up afterwards, by the way. They usually do.
The oddly stirring history of how this remarkable institution came to be has been recounted at thrilling length by Daniel Rosenthal in The National Theatre Story. Here, he tells a different tale, brilliantly evoking the day-to-day life of a great theatre... The genius of Rosenthal’s book, which is both a revelation and a celebration, is to tell this story in the participants’ words... The immediacy of these exchanges, the sense of the current moment and its pressures, is so much more vivid than any emotion recollected in tranquillity... The presence of rarely heard voices is a great strength of the book.
Five years ago, Daniel Rosenthal wrote the official history of the National Theatre, a doorstop of a book that is impressive in its comprehensiveness but rather dismaying in its lack of colour. This companion volume, a collection of letters, covers the same ground but in a more vivid and dramatic way... Chronologically en route, it whisks through the personnel and the plays with brio, well-judged illustrations and incisive editing... But it is also revelatory to see what an impact an artistic director or a director can have... An alternate history lurks in this engrossing book’s margins...