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'National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage' review: Don't miss it

Benedict Cumberbatch as Rosencrantz in

Benedict Cumberbatch as Rosencrantz in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," by Tom Stoppard. The play was first performed at the National Theatre in 1967 with John Stride and Edward Petherbridge in the title roles. Credit: Catherine Ashmore

THE SHOW "National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage" on "Great Performances"

WHEN | WHERE Friday night at 9 on PBS/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT For its 50th year, London's National Theatre threw itself a party last November that, thanks to satellite transmission to movie theaters, became an international sensation. Now we, too, can marvel at two hours of live performances and rare footage from the institution that has sent us "Amadeus," "The History Boys," "War Horse" and just about everything worth knowing from Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Michael Frayn. Artistic director Nicholas Hytner has put together a boggling overview, selected from about 800 productions that the National has staged since Laurence Olivier first ran the institution at the Old Vic in 1963.

Highlights from the archives include a delicious young Maggie Smith in "Hay Fever," Judi Dench singing "Send in the Clowns" and the opening moments of the National's first production, "Hamlet," with Derek Jacobi as the Ghost. Joan Plowright re-creates her Saint Joan on the stage of the old theater. Performing live at the National's home, Helen Mirren does a harrowing scene from "Mourning Becomes Electra." Benedict Cumberbatch wittily expounds on "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," Ralph Fiennes triumphs as a certain Australian press lord in "Pravda," while Michael Gambon and Jacobi do the same scene from "No Man's Land" that we just watched in a 1976 clip with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

MY SAY I wish the actors in the live performances were identified. Otherwise, I wish it would have gone on forever.

BOTTOM LINE Don't miss it.



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