The establishment of a national theatre in Britain was a long affair. Given that the country is home to Shakespeare and other great early playwrights it might seem odd that it was only in the 1960s that the country finally had one… not a dedicated building, but a national theatre company.
In 1847 Dramaticus (a pseudonym) wrote a pamphlet on the poor state of British theatre. Spoken plays could only be performed in patent theatres, and there weren’t many, while the plays themselves were censored by the Chancellor’s office, forcing most theatres to concentrate on musical acts, operas and melodramas, the pantomimes of the day. Theatre was about money and ratings, not dramatic artistry. When a French comedy show moved into the Gaiety Theatre, it was considered to be visiting aristocracy.
The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (1879-1926) opened in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Will, but in London, there was still nothing of that status.
George Bernard Shaw wrote a comedy – The Dark Lady of the Sonnets – in which Shakespeare tried to persuade Queen Elizabeth I to build a national theatre. This was in 1910.
By 1948, a site was chosen, next to the soon to be built Royal Festival Hall on the southern banks of the River Thames, and the National Theatre Act was passed in 1949. However by 1951, there was still nothing on the site other than a foundation stone. The government deemed it too expensive and wanted an amalgamation of other theatre companies, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sadler’s Wells and Old Vic, to fill the gap. A board was finally constituted in 1962 to run the National Theatre company, which leased the Old Vic Theatre, a stone’s throw away from the Southbank. The first production was Hamlet with Peter O’Toole. Here the company remained until at last in 1977, the National Theatre finally had a proper home.
The extensive complex on the Southbank includes a concert hall, museums, an aquarium, galleries and the London Eye.
Technically it’s the Royal National Theatre, the royal being granted in 1988, but it’s rarely used. It’s known now as the NT.
The NT has three separate theatres: the Olivier (1100 seats) with a fan-shaped auditorium and drum revolving thrust stage that goes up five storeys; the Lyttleton (890) with a classic proscenium arch; the minimalist Lloyd Dorfman (originally named Cottesloe), seats 400. A temporary theatre, The Shed, was used between 2013-2016 while the Cottesloe was reworked into the Dorfman. The Shed was a black box theatre, which is typically small, square, black walls and flat stage, and allows greater interaction with the audience. Its roots are in the Avant Garde movement in Europe.
NT building is another example of Brutalism. Prince Charles describes it as, ‘A clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.’ Brutal.
Lots of angles, concrete, walkways, balconies, foyers and cafes. Another one of those love it or loathe it types of building.
You don’t notice it, I think. Because walking along the Southbank, you’re busy looking at the opposite side of the river, where the older buildings form a line. You’re watching the street artists and dodging pigeons and seagulls. The productions are amazing. Does it matter that the theatre isn’t a beautiful construct?
NT Live started in 2009 and casts live productions into cinemas up and down the country. With so many theatres shut at the moment, it is currently making available live streams for short periods. This week, I’ll be watching Jane Eyre. In a time of national crisis, it’s good to know we have a National Theatre.