Belfast Telegraph

When it comes to the theatre, Northern Ireland a hard act to follow

By Jane Graham

It's been a tough week for some of the UK's oldest, proudest institutions. With more stories about our faltering NHS, the slow assault on the welfare system, new political threats to the BBC and the death of shipbuilding in Portsmouth, it’s easy to believe there's less and less to shout about in a Britannia that used to rule the waves and show the rest of the world how it was done.

But there are some things we've been excelling at for hundreds of years and this week we had happy reason to celebrate one of them. The National Theatre's 50th birthday party, which BBC2 ensured we were all invited to, was an awe-inspiring joy, and a timely reminder that the writers, actors and playmakers of these isles have been masters of their domain for half a millennia, and continue to be the envy of the world.

Where do I start? This production — a medley of the National Theatre's greatest hits — was chockablock with the kind of talent that makes an audience weak at the knees with gratitude and glee.

We watched Judi Dench striding the boards as the powerful, self-possessed Cleopatra and then just a little later, sitting hunched and vulnerable on the edge of a bed trilling a haunting version of Send in the Clowns from Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

It certainly wasn't note perfect, but that was exactly the point — her broken, faltering delivery of lines like ‘Making my entrance again with my usual flair. Sure of my lines; No one is there’ convinced the audience, if only for those few, breath-held seconds, that it was witness to the saddest song ever sung.

There were other moments of great emotion, quite a feat for a series of unbuilt-up, unconnected excerpts. It will be hard to forget the sight of Joan Plowright, widow of the NT's first director Laurence Olivier, back in the Old Vic to revisit the role of Shaw's St Joan, so alive and virile in her hands half a decade ago, but even more poignant in her 84th year: “To shut me from the light of the sky ... to make me breathe foul damp darkness.”

Simon Russell Beale showed us how even the most familiar of speeches can spellbind when he dared a pin to drop during his commanding performance of Hamlet's most famous soliloquy. Alan Bennett filled the auditorium with delight when he made a surprise appearance filling in for the late lamented Richard Griffiths in a hilarious scene from his own, brilliant History Boys. Dominic Cooper and Andrew Scott stopped the air with a scene from Angels in America in which Scott revealed he was dying of Aids. James Corden reminded us what a brilliant physical funnyman he is by beating himself up, Fight Club-style, in One Man, Two Guvnors.

Online, TV viewers had a ball sharing their excitement at spotting the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon (‘Dumbledore’!). We reminisced about our first trips to the theatre. I was cock-a-hoop to see the first London play I ever attended, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, brought back to life.

It's worth remembering that theatre isn't just a luvvie-fest for thesps and their fan clubs. It's a huge part of the UK arts industry, supplying hundreds of jobs and bringing millions of pounds into our economy. We may be witnessing the demise of heavy industry, but we still stand like giants in the world of words, poetry, music and performance. And what a thrill it was to be so roundly reminded of it.

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