A House for Shakespeare

As the National Theatre approaches its 50th anniversary, James Naughtie traces the long road to its foundation, and explores whether the struggles and delays in fact resulted in a more versatile and creative establishment than elsewhere in Europe.

Episode One: A House for Shakespeare

France has had a national theatre since 1680, Greece since 1880. The National Theatre in London is a youngster by comparison, with plans to celebrate its 50th birthday in October 2013.

For the homeland of Shakespeare, this may seem anomalous, but as James Naughtie investigates the reasons why the founding of a National Theatre took so long, he comes to the conclusion that the delays resulted in an unusually versatile, creative and popular cultural institution.

In Episode One, James Naughtie traces the story from 1848, when the radical publisher Effingham Wilson publishes a pamphlet called A House for Shakespeare, to the years of the First World War when hopes for a fitting celebration of the tricentenary of Shakespeare's death were at first dashed and then met in an unexpected way.

He speaks with Nicholas Hytner, Richard Eyre, Michael Frayn, Michael Billington and Jacky Bratton, as well as listening to the voices of Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thordyke and other theatrical luminaries in the BBC Archives, tracing a story in which the arts, history, politics and national identity share the stage.

Readings: Simon Russell Beale

Producer: Beaty Rubens.

Release date:

Available now

30 minutes

Last on

Sun 6 Oct 2013 13:30

Upcoming programmes on the National Theatre

On Radio 4 Extra:

Saturday 19 October

The National Theatre at 50
9.00am–12.00pm (rpt 7.00pm – 10.00pm)
Daniel Rosenthal conjures up stories and scenes from five decades of a unique national institution, featuring big names, songs from the shows and secrets from behind the scenes.

Sunday 20 October

The National Theatre at 50: The Nativity  
11.00am – 12.00pm (rpt 7.00 – 8.00pm)
Another chance to hear The Nativity from Bill Bryden's Royal National Theatre production of The Mysteries, based on the medieval plays of York, Wakefield and Chester, in a version by Tony Harrison.

The National Theatre at 50: Elmina's Kitchen
8.00pm  –  9.30pm
First performed at the National Theatre in 2003 the play won its author Kwame Kwei-Armah the Evening Standard Drama Awards Most Promising Playwright award. 
Ex-boxer Deli runs a cafe in Hackney. Keeping his son safe, his business alive and staying out of trouble is a full-time job in East London's notorious Murder Mile.

Monday 21 October

The National Theatre at 50:  The Third Soldier Holds His Thighs
7.00pm – 8.00pm
In 1982 Mary Whitehouse brought a prosecution against Michael Bogdanov, director of the National Theatre, over the production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain, which included a simulated male rape. In Mark Lawson’s documentary drama about the case actors Peter Sproule and Greg Hicks play themselves, with Eleanor Bron as Mrs Mary Whitehouse and Simon Callow as Peter Hall.

Monday 21 October – Friday 25 October

The National Theatre at 50:  The Passion Play 1/5
2.30 – 2.45pm
Retold in five 15 minute episodes, this is Bill Bryden’s radio version of his National Theatre production of The Passion adapted from the medieval Mystery plays of York, Wakefield and Chesterfield and written by Tony Harrison.

Saturday 26 October

The History Boys
7.00pm - 9.30pm

Sunday 27 October

7.00pm - 9:15pm

Sunday 3 November

7.00pm - 9.00pm


On BBC4:

Thursday 24 October

Arena National Theatre


Thursday 31 October

Arena National Theatre


On BBC2:

Saturday 2 November

National Theatre Live Event