If you’re eager to take a break from the Winter Olympic Games, or if you’re just ready for two beguiling hours of television on general principal, Great Performances tonight presents the national television premiere of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage on many PBS affiliates (as always, check your local TV listings to confirm when it’s airing in your area).
This glittering two-hour special, which was screened as a live satellite transmission to a limited number of U.S. movie theaters last November, spotlights a jaw-dropping array of British actors as they assemble to pay tribute to the first half-century of productions at a venue that is their part-time home: The National Theatre, which opened its doors at the Old Vic in 1983 under the artistic leadership of Sir Laurence Olivier before eventually transferring to its current location on London’s South Bank. The NT, which houses the Olivier, Lyttleton and Cottlesloe Theatres, annual generates an acclaimed combination of both classics and new works each night.
The evening’s program combines archival snippets of great past productions with a number of actors appearing live on stage to perform a speech from a play with which they’re associated. In the most moving example, we see an old clip of Maggie Smith at her most hilariously mannered in a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever from her salad days, juxtaposed with the veteran actress of today as she recites a worldly-wise monologue from The Beaux’ Strategem, a Restoration comedy.
Another huge audience favorite, Judi Dench, appears to recreate two roles that won her the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony Award) as best actress: as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and as aging actress Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Among Britain’s younger contingent of stars, Benedict Cumberbatch appears in a scene from his past triumph in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, while Cumberbatch’s Sherlock nemesis, Andrew Scott, and Dominic Cooper perform a scene from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
The cast of 100 performers also includes such familiar faces as Christopher Eccleston, Joan Plowright, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith, Helen Mirren and Derek Jacobi.
As the program unfolds, the producers’ desire to pack as much as possible into two hours inevitably starts to feel like the video equivalent of picking one’s way through the greatest Whitman’s chocolate sampler of all time, as one great moment in English drama after another follows all too fleetingly on the other. Also, I do regret that not all plays or even featured performers are identified (for the record, that’s a singer named Clive Rowe bringing down the house in “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls).
Still, even if you can’t put a name to an occasional face or performance, there’s no missing that, in terms of quality per minute, National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is an embarrassment of riches.