The 10 greatest productions the National Theatre never staged

Lined up for productions that didn't make it: Ronnie Barker, Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith. Photos: City Syndication/Tristram Kenton
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The National has staged some 800 productions, but its archive contains traces of hundreds more. When I researched The National Theatre Story, my biography of the NT, I found evidence of so many shows mooted but then shelved that it is easy to understand why Trevor Nunn, NT director from 1997–2003, says “the history of a producing theatre is not what it wanted to do, but what it did.” Here are 10 tantalising glimpses of what might have been.



The Pretenders 

Soon after his Old Vic triumph with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard was commissioned by the National to write a new version of Ibsen’s The Pretenders. Ingmar Bergman would direct Laurence Olivier as Skule, newly crowned King of Norway, opposite John Gielgud as Bishop Nicholas. Olivier’s ill-health saw The Pretenders indefinitely postponed. Instead, Gielgud made his debut with the NT Company as Orgon in Tartuffe.


Guys and Dolls

In the National’s first attempt at a Broadway musical, Garson Kanin was to direct Olivier as Nathan Detroit and Geraldine McEwan as Miss Adelaide in Loesser, Swerling and Burrows’ great musical. Simon Callow writes of the company “joyfully and rigorously preparing themselves, taking singing and dancing lessons for what looked like a sure-fire triumph”, but Guys and Dolls was postponed, then cancelled by the NT board – again because of Olivier’s poor health. Richard Eyre’s smash hit Guys and Dolls in the Olivier in 1982 was ‘shadowed’ by the lost Kanin production.


Leatherstocking Tales

More than a decade before Michael Mann’s much lauded film version of The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis, playwright Keith Dewhurst and director Bill Bryden hoped to stage a promenade adaptation of all four of 19th century US writer James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, on successive evenings in the Cottesloe, presenting “a panorama of the early American frontier and the spoliation of the wilderness”. Dewhurst and Bryden pictured the eponymous hero being played by Mark McManus (Jesus in the Cottesloe company’s The Passion), and “were tickled by the idea of Jack Shepherd gliding up in Huron war paint… Bill Bryden leaked this project to a newspaper, but it did not materialise.”



Paramount Studios had lined up NT Associate Director John Schlesinger to film Alive (1974), Piers Paul Read’s bestselling account of the Uruguayan rugby team who resorted to cannibalism to survive after their plane crashed in the Andes, but Schlesinger told NT director Peter Hall that “a play with music would suit [Alive] best”, provided there was “very skilful adaptation”. Christopher Hampton was Schlesinger’s first-choice author, and as composer he favoured Maury Yeston, who had just written the Fellini musical Nine. The idea went no further. In 1993, Paramount released a riveting film of Alive, directed by Frank Marshall.


The Entertainer

Just when “a renaissance in his fallow career was possible”, writes John Heilpern in his biography of John Osborne, the playwright’s “self-destructive streak sabotaged” Ronald Eyre’s Lyttelton revival of The Entertainer. Two weeks before rehearsals were due to begin, Osborne vetoed the casting of Joan Plowright as Phoebe, wife of Archie Rice, to be played by Alan Bates. “The whole incident’s arisen from mismanagement and insensitivity,” Osborne told the Evening Standard. Hall replaced The Entertainer with Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Anthony Page directed Plowright in the title role.


Henry IV Part One and Part Two

Ronnie Barker’s “great stroke of luck” in his 20s had been to act for Peter Hall at Oxford Rep in 1955. Thirty years later, he considered Hall’s invitation to play Falstaff at the National. Barker lived in Pinner, wondered what time he would need to set off by car to reach an NT rehearsal room by 10am, and concluded: “If your first priority… is how you’re going to get through the traffic, you really shouldn’t be in this business anymore.” He wrote to Hall: “Thank you for your offer. I’ve considered it and I’m going to retire.” In 2005, Michael Gambon became the NT’s first Falstaff when Nicholas Hytner staged Henry IV in the Olivier.


Nil by Mouth

Having explored the Anglican clergy in Racing Demon (1990) and the criminal justice system in Murmuring Judges (1991), David Hare’s original target for the concluding part of his state-of-the-nation trilogy was the NHS, in a play provisionally titled Nil by Mouth. His research had scarcely begun when he changed tack, principally, he said, because medicine was so comprehensively dramatised on television, “and at such a level of sophistication that I didn’t have anything to add.” Instead, he wrote The Absence of War (1993), in which John Thaw was George Jones, who leads Labour to general election defeat.


Pal Joey 

Richard Eyre wanted to direct Rodgers and Hart’s musical, with Diana Rigg as the wealthy, callous Vera Simpson, but felt that its book needed attention: perhaps Tom Stoppard could revise it? Eyre eventually concluded: “I simply didn’t have either the appetite or the time to get Pal Joey in shape.” Instead, he revived Guys and Dolls to sell-out effect in 1996/97.


Blithe Spirit 

Tim Luscombe wanted to stage Noël Coward’s comedy as his NT directing debut, but Eyre could not find the right actress to play the ghostly Elvira. “I have talked to both Geraldine McEwan and Maggie Smith about it,” he wrote to Luscombe. “Neither is keen, nor indeed is Judi Dench, so I think I will pass on it for the time being.”


The Lady from the Sea 

Three years after her sensational London theatre debut in The Blue Room at the Donmar, Nicole Kidman had agreed to come to the National, for Trevor Nunn to direct her as Ibsen’s haunted title character, Ellida Wangel, but her filming commitments intervened. Instead, The Lady from the Sea became Nunn’s first post-NT assignment, with Natasha Richardson, at the Almeida in May 2003.

Daniel Rosenthal’s The National Theatre Story (Oberon Books) will be published on November 11. He presents The National Theatre at Fifty on Radio 4 Extra from 9am-12pm on Saturday, October 19