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Theatre Beyond Performance - The National Theatre

National Theatre: 40 years as a Space for Play National Theatre 25 October 2016 On 25 October 1976, the National Theatre Complex was opened on the South bank of the Thames River. In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the building’s opening, The National Theatre hosted a symposium about the event, and the creation of the space, featuring Richard Pilbrow (lighting designer for Sir Laurence Olivier, the space’s first Artistic Director), Paule Constable (an Associate at the National, and lighting designer for current productions), and Steve Tompkins (a partner in Haworth Tompkins, Lts, a firm currently designing future expansions of the National Theatre).

In the mid 1960's, Sir Laurence Olivier led a national effort to raise funds and create a permanent structure to house Britain's National Theatre (operating until 1976 in the Old Vic, near Waterloo station). After years of effort, the huge Brutalist complex designed by Denys Lasdun was opened a short walk from the Old Vic: upon opening the structure was voted both 'Best Loved" and 'Most Hated' building on London...for two years running. Whether put off by the cold concrete wallls, or stunned by the organic flow of the building, the now iconic structure dominates the Southern end of the Waterloo Bridge. It is a series of terraces and steps which sprawls and flows along Southbank, looking like a ziggurat which has been flattened and pushed about. The National Theatre complex contains 3 very different, but complementary, theatre spaces:

The Olivier Theatre is the largest of the three, is a full, massive rounded auditorium stage. In order to create a space which allows a large community of theatre goers to communicate directly with the piece on stage, as well as one another, Lasdun took his cue from the ancient theatre at Epidaurus in Greece- a theatre based on both creating and sharing the story on stage, as well as creating a communal experience. The Olivier Theatre seats 1,160 ( Epidaurus seats 15,000),and the open fan auditorium allows the space to feel both massive and intimate at once. The crowning technology of the Olivier Theatre is a massive drum revolve- a five story high cylinder sunk into the stage, which allows sets to not only spin into view, but be raise and lowered as well:

The Olivier Theatre's drum revolve stage in action in the National Theatre's production of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials'

The Lyttelton Theatre is a more conventional space, with an adjustable aperture proscenium. The Lyttelton seats 890, and has a generous balcony space. Like the Olivier, it has the facilities to create massive pieces of theatre, with a wing and back space which can contain movable wagons, carrying a set as large as the entire playing space. It also has capacious fly and storage space overhead, to accommodate standard drop and fly sets and staging. The adjustable aperture of the proscenium can focus the audience's attention on an intimate piece, or open the space to allow for a very broad stage picture.

The Dorfman Theatre is an intimate space with movable seating, which make it ideal for more experimental work and new plays. The entire seating structure can be removed or changed to allow for thrust, galley or theatre in the round. The seating may also be raised or lowered to create a raked audience- or removed altogether to create an interactive playspace. Due to a recent overhaul of the theatre space, the modular seating is computerized so that it may be reconfigured in under an hour, and changed with the press of a button.

In creating these theatres, Lasdun had the input of several important theatre artists, each with his or her own ideas on what it takes to create a remarkable space for creating theatre:

  • It should be a place where the audience and the actors are in the same room

  • A space where the actor can be ‘marvellous’

  • The actor should be able to be ‘in the audience’s lap’

  • The actor should be able to arrive ‘as if from a million miles away’

This discussion led to a remarkable series of reconsiderations and reassessments of what the theatres could be (picture of Lasdun’s work room, with a pile of discarded models, is to the left).

In the face of all of these comments, Lasdun made a statement:

“The piece we are all not talking about is the spiritual one’

With this view in mind, Lasdun created a space which supported all of the artistic and technical need of the National Theatre (and created very different, very flexible spaces for play)- but then also created what he called his ‘Fourth Theatre:” the lobby and public spaces of the building. In addition to the theatres. the complex also includes full scenic shops; several restaurants, bars, and cafes; and a several tier lobby space which is rarely empty. This lobby is both a welcoming place to begin an evening of theatre, as well as a workspace, a cafeteria, a meeting place, and a gallery. The lobby space is a sort of enclosed park, where people gather at all times of the day to have a coffee or a chat, or simply be together in public. The public spaces flows from the top gallery entrances of the Olivier down, cascades along staircases, eddies into small private nooks and balconies along the way, and pools into a massive open space filled with work tables and spaces to sit, chat, enjoy the view of the Thames or have a coffee. In Lasdun’s “Fourth Theatre,” it is London itself which is on display: an optimal spot for people watching, exchanging ideas…

…or writing a blog. Theatre becomes a public forum, become a part of the everyday life of everyone in the city, from students working, to businessmen planning a merger, to technicians going over a cue sheet- and the act of theatre is no longer hidden or treated as an event: it is a concourse for ideas.

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