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‘Its best-kept secret’ – a glimpse into the National Theatre Archive

The National Theatre Archive in Oval. Photo: James Bellorini
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To celebrate 25 years of the National Theatre Archive, an exhibition of pieces selected by 25 theatremakers, scholars and one critic has been curated to pay tribute to the institution and its artists. Nick Smurthwaite finds out more

Just as the National Theatre is respected worldwide, bolstered by its overseas touring and the ever-burgeoning NT Live, so its extensive online archive has built a strong international reputation.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the archive’s creation – based at the NT Studio next door to the Old Vic – the National is staging an exhibition called Theatre Treasures: National Theatre Archive Unboxed.

It has invited 25 theatre practitioners, scholars, artists and one veteran critic to pick an item from the archive, with an accompanying explanation, or original artwork, as to why they chose it.

The journalist selected, the Guardian’s Michael Billington, is probably the last print critic to have seen every significant NT production since its early days at the Old Vic. He chose one of designer Jocelyn Herbert’s spectral masks from Peter Hall’s 1981 production of The Oresteia for the exhibition. Billington’s admiration for Herbert’s work in general is second only to his high opinion of the NT archive.

Programme for Mother-Courage and her Children (1995)

Describing it as “an authentic National treasure”, Billington adds: “It is not only a vital resource for students, authors, theatre practitioners and members of the public; at a time of short-term cultural memory it also provides a vital historical record and uses every possible resource to bring it to life.”

The exhibition represents a wide sweep of the National’s history, from Peter Brook’s Oedipus at the Old Vic in 1968 to Rory Mullarkey’s The Grandfathers, an NT Connections production in 2013. In many cases, those chosen to contribute to the exhibition have paid tribute to productions that influenced or inspired them early on in their careers.

The actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith – an active supporter of the Black Plays Archive, which is held within the NT Archive – has selected Simon McBurney’s 1997 revival of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and has written and performed an original song to honour it.

Designer Soutra Gilmour has picked the programme for Richard Eyre’s acclaimed 1996 production of Guys and Dolls because it was the first show she saw at the National. For the exhibition, Gilmour has created a “spider” diagram showing how that experience shaped her subsequent theatrical journey.

Theatre scholar Jane Collins also references Herbert’s work, picking out a set design for Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance from 1959. It was not a National production but a significant component of the designer’s archive, which is held within the NT Archive.

Some contributions are more elaborate than others. The security guard at the NT Archive, Slav Kirichok, who also happens to be a talented photographer and film-maker, has created a short video in tribute to Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Frankenstein.

Poster for Equus (1973), designed by Gilbert Lesser

Bastian Mueller, a member of the NT graphics team, has made an ingenious “tangram” inspired by the iconic poster for the original production of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus. Visitors can move all the component pieces of the geometrical design around to make other shapes and configurations.

Playwright and director Patrick Marber has picked the prompt script for Peter Hall’s 1975 production of No Man’s Land, starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. A stage direction by Harold Pinter has been excised in pencil, prompting Marber to comment: “A bracing reminder that the play is not the production. The theatre is a collective form. No one is God.”

The exhibition is also an opportunity for the NT Archive, described by director Emily Lim as “the National’s best kept secret”, to pay tribute to the volunteers and research assistants who provide an invaluable service for no financial remuneration.

Erin Lee, the NT’s head of archive, who was named record keeper of the year in 2018 by the Archives and Records Association, held a competition among her researchers last year to determine who among them would choose something for the exhibition. The winner was Adrian Curtin, who picked a photograph of Bob Crowley’s design for Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, a production from 2009.

Set model for Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (2009)

The ebullient Lee, who joined the NT Archive as an assistant in 2013, has been largely responsible for overseeing the digitisation of all the paper and photographic content, and a significant proportion of the recorded content.

Since 1995, every NT production has been visually recorded in some form or other, if not as elaborately as those productions streamed by NT Live. Before NT Live there were audio recordings. These archive recordings are viewable or listenable by request individually on computer screens, or collectively on a larger screen.

National Theatre head of archive Erin Lee
National Theatre head of archive Erin Lee

One of Lee’s most urgent priorities has been to integrate the archive into the day-to-day running of the organisation. She says: “It used to be thought of as this extra thing – the fact that it was based in Oval didn’t help – whereas now we have become embedded in the life of the National. I hope all departments view the archive as part of their work flow. There is increasingly more ebb and flow with other departments compared to most other archives I’m aware of.”

To this end, Lee is about to embark on a PhD focusing on the documentation of performance and process, backed by her NT employers. “I’m hoping it will enhance how we document new productions for the archive and for future generations,” she says.

Theatre Treasures: National Theatre Archive Unboxed is in the Lyttelton Lounge at the National Theatre, London

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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