Entertainment & Arts

The Queen meets War Horse star as National Theatre turns 50

Queen Elizabeth II receives flowers from a child actor as she inspects the horse prop from the theatre production "War Horse" during a visit at the National Theatre in London, Tuesday Oct. 22, 2013 to commemorate the institution’s 50th anniversary
Image caption Queen Elizabeth met a puppet prop from War Horse during her visit to the National Theatre

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have visited the National Theatre, as the institution celebrates its 50th birthday.

During the tour, the Queen met one of the puppet horses from the NT's acclaimed production of War Horse.

The Queen has previously seen the show, based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, which tells the story of Joey, a horse who serves in World War I.

NT director Sir Nicholas Hytner said it had been "a very special day".

Tuesday is 50 years to the day since the first National Theatre production.

Peter O'Toole played Hamlet on 22 October 1963 at the Old Vic theatre, the NT's original home, under the direction of its founder Sir Laurence Olivier.

Among the cast in that first performance was the 23-year-old actor Michael Gambon.

Speaking at a 50th anniversary talk at the National's Olivier Theatre on Tuesday night, Sir Michael recalled: "I never had to speak. I was just at the back with a spear."

He added: "I used to walk out of the stage door at night at the Old Vic and put myself just behind Sir Laurence as he was going out to his car to seem as though I was one of his friends."

Actress Sheila Reid, who appeared in Olivier's Othello in 1964, said that appearing stage with Sir Laurence "was a bit like playing tennis with somebody better than yourself".

The NT moved to its current home on the South Bank in 1976.

More than 800 productions have taken place over the last 50 years, including premieres of plays by Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer, Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett and David Hare.

During their visit on Tuesday, the Queen and Prince Philip were given a tour by outgoing director Sir Nicholas Hytner.

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Media captionThe Queen visits The National Theatre

They heard a musical number from Guys and Dolls, the first musical to be staged at the National in 1982, and watched a rehearsal for the forthcoming production Emil And The Detectives, based on the story of a boy living in 1920s Berlin.

Dame Joan Plowright, who was married to Sir Laurence Olivier when he led the National Theatre, also met the Queen.

The actress said: "It's a very special day, it's quite hard not to feel quite emotional about it.

"I remember what the day was like when it was about to open - the nerves and apprehension. It's a huge task to take on the first season of a new national theatre."

Dame Joan added: "It's had quite a history - I would say more triumphs than disasters."

The Queen also unveiled a plaque to mark her visit and the 50th anniversary.

Tuesday's encounter with War Horse puppet Joey wasn't the first time the Queen had met the mechanical star of the show, which is in the West End and abroad.

Image caption The royal visitors also heard the cast of Guys And Dolls perform Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat

During the Diamond Jubilee River Thames pageant last summer, the Queen appeared to enjoy watching the animal running across the roof of the National Theatre, which first staged the play, as the royal barge sailed past.

As her tour of the theatre company ended, she told the puppet horse: "It's lovely to see you again."

Puppeteer Gareth Aled said after meeting the Queen: "She's familiar with horses and with Joey, it's a very lovely privilege to have that meeting, she knows horses probably better than we do."

Joey walked up to the Queen and followed her as she walked to her waiting state limousine before rearing up on his hind legs as the car departed.

Mr Aled added: "It's all about striving for realistic horse movement, every horse movement should feel life-like."

Dame Judi 'thrilled'

The National Theatre's 50th year is being marked by a series of events, including a star-studded gala on 2 November which will be shown on BBC Two.

Image caption Dame Judi Dench is among the stars to reprise famous roles as the theatre turns 50

Famous alumni including Dame Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Derek Jacobi and Dame Maggie Smith will perform speeches from roles they have played there.

Dame Maggie will reprise her role as Mrs Sullen in George Farquhar's comedy The Beaux' Stratagem, Russell Beale will return to Hamlet, while Dame Judi, who appeared in Antony and Cleopatra in 1987, will re-enact the elegy to Antony.

"I'm frightened, but I'm thrilled to be part of it," Dame Judi told the BBC.

Sir Nicholas Hytner even hinted to the Evening Standard that blockbuster show The History Boys, which launched the career of James Corden, could even make a return for the gala.

Dame Judi said the institution was still "essential" as it celebrated its golden anniversary.

"The place is absolutely buzzing with people," she told BBC entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba. "There are exhibitions, there is music, there are three theatres going. It's a very alive place.

"We need that to stimulate our emotions. We need to see things that make us cry, laugh, think about something, be excited, be saddened, be angry.

"We were so long without a National Theatre," she added, "and we've been very, very lucky."

Sir Nicholas Hytner leaves the National Theatre in 2015, when he will be replaced by Rufus Norris, whose credits include The Amen Corner and Dr Dee: An English Opera.

The role is widely regarded as the biggest job in British theatre. Norris, who was appointed last week, called it "a great honour".

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