The National Theatre's first performance took place on 22 October 1963 at the Old Vic – Peter O'Toole played Hamlet. To celebrate its 50th anniversary we've visited two of the NT's lesser known parts. Today, the Archive.
The very nature of theatre is that it's transient. No two performances are the same and once a run is over, that's it. You've missed it. Gone. Apart from at the National Theatre, where the archive helps keep productions alive and you can even watch them again.
You might have heard of NT Live, where select performances are broadcast to cinemas, and expect these to be kept. And of course they are, but that's not the end of it. Since the 1980s all NT productions have been recorded on video (audio recordings exist before that), initially with just one fixed camera and since 2005 with three cameras from which an edit is produced.
Because of rights issues these recordings can't be shown off the site (which is why the NT doesn't release DVDs like The Globe) but anyone can go into the Archive, sit at a computer and watch them. You need to book ahead though, it's not a very big room. Never got round to seeing Democracy? Have The History Boys on DVD but want to see the original, darker, better stage version? Studying Shakespeare for your exams and want to see how the greats performed it?
Students and drama societies might be even more interested in the other items held in the archives. For any production, staff will put together a box that contains a programme, prompt book and day-by-day notes so you can see the decisions that were taken in rehearsals. When we visited someone had just been researching After the Dance (the head archivist tells us they get a lot of Benedict Cumberbatch fans in) and flipping through the rehearsal notes we caught the line "Mr Cumberbatch will need a haircut after he finishes his current filming". You won't get that kind of detail anywhere else.
The entire archive is a treasure trove: there are posters for every production, photos, even correspondence from all the NT Directors (including what we're going to call vigorous disagreements). For older and more delicate items you may need a better reason to see them than "I really like Sherlock", but the staff are lovely and will do their best to help.
If you can't get to the Archive in person you can always browse the online repository. Full productions aren't included (those rights issues again), but there are several ways to access recordings of Platform talks by actors, directors, writers and experts: either via the NT website itself, YouTube or iTunesU – the turnaround is swift, there are already 50th anniversary Platforms up there – as well as videos from various NT departments like fight direction.
The NT Archive is next to the Old Vic Theatre at 83-101 The Cut, SE1. It's open 10am-5pm Monday-Wednesday and 12-8pm on Thursdays by appointment only. They can also arrange screenings for school groups on site.
See also: National Theatre Costume and Props Hire