Royal National Theatre

Royal National Theatre

Coordinates: 51°30′26″N 0°06′51″W / 51.5071°N 0.1141°W / 51.5071; -0.1141

National Theatre

The National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge
Royal National Theatre is located in Central London
Location within Central London
Address South Bank
City Lambeth, London
Designation Grade II*
Architect Denys Lasdun
Capacity Olivier Theatre 1,160 seats
Lyttelton Theatre 890 seats
Cottesloe Theatre 400 seats
Type National theatre
Opened 1976
Production Repertory

The Royal National Theatre (generally known as the National Theatre and commonly as The National) in London is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company. Internationally, it is styled the National Theatre of Great Britain.[1]

From its foundation in 1963 until 1976, the company was based at the Old Vic theatre in Waterloo. The current building was designed by architects Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley and contains three stages, which opened individually between 1976 and 1977.[2] It is located next to the Thames in the South Bank area of central London. In addition to performances at the National Theatre building, the National Theatre company continues to perform touring productions at theatres across the United Kingdom.[3]

Since 1988, the theatre has been permitted to call itself the Royal National Theatre, but the full title is rarely used. The theatre presents a varied programme, including Shakespeare and other international classic drama; and new plays by contemporary playwrights. Each auditorium in the theatre can run up to three shows in repertoire, thus further widening the number of plays which can be put on during any one season.

In the 2009-2010 season, the theatre began National Theatre Live (NTLive!), a program of simulcasts of live productions to movie theater venues in other cities, first in the United Kingdom and then internationally. The first season, it broadcast productions of three plays. In the 2010-2011 season, it is adding broadcast productions by other companies, in partnership with Complicite and Donmar Warehouse.

The NT has an annual turnover of approximately £54 million (in 2008–09). Earned income made up approximately 54% of this total (34% from ticket sales and 20% as revenue from the restaurants, bookshops, etc.). Support from the Arts Council and a number of smaller government grants provided 35% of this income, and the remaining 11% came from a mixture of private support from companies, individuals, trusts and foundations.[4]



In 1847, a critic using the pseudonym Dramaticus published a pamphlet[5] describing the parlous state of British theatre. Production of serious plays was restricted to the patent theatres, and new plays were subjected to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. At the same time, there was a burgeoning theatre sector featuring a diet of low melodrama and musical burlesque; but critics described British theatre as driven by commercialism and a 'star' system. There was a demand to commemorate serious theatre, with the "Shakespeare Committee" purchasing the playwright's birthplace for the nation demonstrating a recognition of the importance of 'serious drama'. The following year saw more pamphlets on a demand for a National Theatre from London publisher, Effingham William Wilson.[6] The situation continued, with a renewed call every decade for a National Theatre. Attention was aroused in 1879 when the Comédie-Française took a residency at the Gaiety Theatre, described in The Times as representing "the highest aristocracy of the theatre". The principal demands now coalesced around: a structure in the capital that would present "exemplary theatre"; that would form a permanent memorial to Shakespeare; a supported company that would represent the best of British acting; and a theatre school.[7]

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was opened in Stratford upon Avon on 23 April 1879, with the New Shakespeare Company (now the Royal Shakespeare Company); and Herbert Beerbohm Tree founded an Academy of Dramatic Art at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1904. This still left the capital without a national theatre. A London Shakespeare League was founded in 1902 to develop a Shakespeare National Theatre and – with the impending tri-centenary in 1916 of his death – in 1913 purchased land for a theatre in Bloomsbury. This work was interrupted by World War I.

Finally, in 1948, the London County Council presented a site close to the Royal Festival Hall for the purpose, and a "National Theatre Act", offering financial support, was passed by Parliament in 1949.[8] Ten years after the foundation stone had been laid in 1951, the Government declared that the nation could not afford a National Theatre; in response the LCC offered to waive any rent and pay half the construction costs. Still, the Government tried to apply unacceptable conditions in order to save money; attempting to force the amalgamation of the existing publicly supported companies: the RSC, Sadler's Wells and Old Vic.[8]

In July 1962, with agreements finally reached, a board was set up to supervise construction, and a separate board was constituted to run a National Theatre Company and lease the Old Vic theatre. The "National Theatre Company" opened on 22 October 1963 with Hamlet. The Company was to remain at the Old Vic until 1976, when construction of the Olivier was complete.[8]


The National Theatre building houses three separate auditoria:

  • The Olivier Theatre (named after the theatre's first artistic director, Laurence Olivier), is the main auditorium, and was modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus; it has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for 1,160 people.[9] An ingenious 'drum revolve' (a five-storey revolving stage section) extends eight metres beneath the stage and is operated by a single staff member. The drum has two rim revolves and two platforms, each of which can carry ten tonnes, facilitating dramatic and fluid scenery changes. Its design ensures that the audience's view is not blocked from any seat, and that the audience is fully visible to actors from the stage's centre. Designed in the 1970s and a prototype of current technology, the drum revolve and a multiple 'sky hook' flying system were initially very controversial and required ten years to commission, but seem to have fulfilled the objective of functionality with high productivity.[10]
  • The Lyttelton Theatre (named after Oliver Lyttelton, the National Theatre's first board chairman) has a proscenium-arch design and can accommodate an audience of 890.
  • The Cottesloe Theatre (named after Lord Cottesloe, chairman of the South Bank Theatre board) is a small, adaptable studio space, designed by Iain Mackintosh, holding up to 400 people depending on the seating configuration. The Cottesloe is to be renamed the Dorfman Theatre (after Lloyd Dorfman, philanthropist and chairman of Travelex Group) in 2013 after a redevelopment of the National Theatre, known as "NT Future".[11]
Denys Lasdun's building for the National Theatre – an "urban landscape" of interlocking terraces responding to the site at King's Reach on the River Thames to exploit views of St Paul's Cathedral and Somerset House.

The riverside forecourt of the theatre is used for regular open-air performances in the summer months. The terraces and foyers of the theatre complex have also been used for ad hoc experimental performances. The decor is frequently dynamic, with recent displays of grass turf as 'outside wallpaper', different statues located in various random places and giant chairs and furniture in the forecourt.

The National Theatre's foyers are open to the public, with a large theatrical bookshop, restaurants, bars and exhibition spaces. Backstage tours run throughout the day, and there is live music every day in the foyer before performances.

The style of the National Theatre building was described by Mark Girouard as "an aesthetic of broken forms" at the time of opening. Architectural opinion was split at the time of construction. Even enthusiastic advocates of the Modern Movement such as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner have found the Béton brut concrete both inside and out overbearing. Most notoriously, Prince Charles described the building in 1988 as "a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting". Sir John Betjeman, however, a man not noted for his enthusiasm for brutalist architecture, was effusive in his praise and wrote to Lasdun stating that he "gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St. Paul's to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many has that inevitable and finished look that great work does."[12]

Despite the controversy, the theatre has been a Grade II* listed building since 1994.[13] Although the theatre is often cited as an archetype of Brutalist architecture in England, since Lasdun's death the building has been re-evaluated as having closer links to the work of Le Corbusier, rather than contemporary monumental 1960s buildings such as those of Paul Rudolph.[14] The carefully refined balance between horizontal and vertical elements in Lasdun's building has been contrasted favourably with the lumpiness of neighbouring buildings such as the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. It is now in the unusual situation of having appeared simultaneously in the top ten "most popular" and "most hated" London buildings in opinion surveys. A recent lighting scheme illuminating the exterior of the building, in particular the fly towers, has proved very popular, and is one of several positive artistic responses to the building.

In September 2007, a statue of Lord Olivier as Hamlet was unveiled outside the building, to mark the centenary of the National's first artistic director.

The National also has a Studio, the National's research and development wing, founded in 1984. The Studio has played a vital role in developing work for the National's stages and throughout British theatre. Writers, actors and practitioners of all kinds can explore, experiment and devise new work there, free from the pressure of public performance. The National Theatre Archive is housed in the same building, which is across the road from the Old Vic in the Cut, Waterloo, and used to house their workshops.


Artistic directors

Laurence Olivier was the first artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, in 1963. Shown in a photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1939

Laurence Olivier became artistic director of the National Theatre at its formation in 1963. He was considered the foremost British film and stage actor of the period, and became the first director of the Chichester Festival Theatre – there forming the company that would unite with the Old Vic Company to form the National Theatre Company. In addition to directing, he continued to appear in many successful productions. He became a life peer in 1970, for his services to theatre, and retired in 1973.

Peter Hall took over, to manage the move to the South Bank. His career included running the Arts Theatre between 1956–1959 — where he directed the English language première of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. He went on to take over the Memorial Theatre at Stratford, and to create a permanent Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1960, also establishing a new base at the Aldwych Theatre for transfers to the West End. He was artistic director at the National between 1973 and 1988; and continues to direct major performances for both the National and the RSC. In 2008, he opened a new theatre, The Rose, and remains its director emeritus.

One of the National's associate directors, Richard Eyre became artistic director in 1988; his experience included running the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and the Nottingham Playhouse. He was noted for his series of collaborations with David Hare on the state of contemporary Britain.

In 1997, Trevor Nunn became artistic director. He came to the National from the RSC, having undertaken a major expansion of the company into the Swan, The Other Place and the Barbican Theatres. He brought a more populist style to the National, introducing musical theatre to the repertoire.

The current artistic director, Nicholas Hytner took over in April 2003. He previously worked as an associate director with the Royal Exchange Theatre and the National. A number of his successful productions have been made into films.

Under his direction, in the 2009-2010 season, the National Theatre expanded its audience by beginning simulcast of live productions, to movie theater venues in the United Kingdom and abroad, through its programme National Theatre Live (NTLive). It is now reaching thousands of new audience members, many of whom would otherwise not have a chance to see high-quality theatre. It broadcast productions of Racine's Phèdre, Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art and Boucicault's London Assurance.

In the 2010-2011 season, it is presenting Hamlet, Frankenstein and Fela!, as well as partnering to present productions of other companies: Complicite's A Disappearing Number and Donmar Warehouse's King Lear.

The National Theatre participates in an Entry Pass scheme which allows young people under the age of 26 to purchase tickets for £5 to any production at the theatre. [15]

Notable productions


In 1962, the company of the Old Vic theatre was dissolved, and reconstituted as the "National Theatre Company" opening on 22 October 1963 with Hamlet. The company remained based in the Old Vic until the new buildings opened in February 1976.





Current and forthcoming productions at the National

National Theatre Studio

The National Theatre studio is a development space on The Cut, founded in 1985 under the directorship of Peter Gill.[24] The studio houses work in progress such as play readings and workshops, and provides a venue for professional training.

The studio is housed in a Grade II listed building designed by architects Lyons, Israel and Ellis. Completed in 1958, the building was refurbished by architects Haworth Tompkins and reopened in Autumn 2007. Purni Morrell has been the Head of Studio since 2006.

National Theatre Connections

This is the annual youth theatre scheme, founded in 1995.

National Theatre Live

National Theatre Live is an exciting initiative to broadcast live performances of the best of British theatre to cinemas around the world.

It launched in June 2009 with a broadcast of Phèdre with Helen Mirren, which was shown in over 200 cinemas around the world and seen by a worldwide audience of more than 50,000 people.

The season continued with Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, Nation which was based on the novel by Terry Pratchett and adapted by Mark Ravenhill and Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art''. The season concluded with London Assurance with Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale.

The second season of broadcasts launched with an encore screening of Phèdre. The first NT Live collaboration with another British theatre company saw Complicite's A Disappearing Number, broadcast live from Theatre Royal Plymouth.

The season continued with Shakespeare's Hamlet and the smash-hit musical FELA!. The second collaborative broadcast King Lear with Derek Jacobi live from Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse.

For the first time ever, National Theatre Live broadcast two separate performances of a production. Throughout the run of Frankenstein, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Audiences in cinemas had the chance to see both combinations.

The second season concludes on 30 June with Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, with Zoe Wanamaker.

The performances are nominated in advance to allow the cameras greater freedom in the auditorium.

Watch This Space Festival

The annual "Watch This Space Festival" is a free summer-long celebration of outdoor theatre, circus and dance. It has events for all ages, including classes for children. The 2010 festival ran from 23 June to 26 September.[25]


  1. ^ Lister, David (11 January 2003). "Wales and Scotland need a cultural revolution". The Independent (London). 
  2. ^ "Denys Lasdun and Peter Hall talk about the building". History of the NT. National Theatre. Retrieved 1 October 2009. [dead link]
  3. ^
  4. ^ National Theatre Annual Report 2008-09
  5. ^ Dramaticus The stage as it is (1847)
  6. ^ Effingham William Wilson A House for Shakespeare. A proposition for the consideration of the Nation and a Second and Concluding Paper (1848)
  7. ^ Woodfield, James (1984). English Theatre in Transition, 1881–1914: 1881–1914. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 95–107. ISBN 0389204838. 
  8. ^ a b c Findlater, Richard The Winding Road to King's Reach (1977), also in Callow. Retrieved 1 July 2008.
  9. ^
  10. ^ History of the Drum Revolve at National Theatre website
  11. ^ Brown, Mark "National Theatre's Cottesloe venue to be renamed after £10m donor" The Guardian, 28 October 2010. Retrieved 5 December 2010.
  12. ^ Pearman, Hugh (21 January 2001). "Gabion: The legacy of Lasdun 2/2". Retrieved 25 April 2008. 
  13. ^ "Detailed Record". Retrieved 25 April 2008. 
  14. ^ Rykwert, Joseph (12 January 2001). "Sir Denys Lasdun obituary". The Independent (London). Retrieved 22 January 2007. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ Theatre programme for Happy Birthday, Sir Larry, dated 31 May 1987
  17. ^ Rocket to the Moon
  18. ^ The Holy Rosenbergs
  19. ^ The Cherry Orchard
  20. ^ Woman Killed with Kindness
  21. ^ One Man, Two Guvnors
  22. ^ London Road
  23. ^ Emperor and Galilean
  24. ^ Cavendish, Dominic (28 November 2007). "National Theatre Studio: More power to theatre's engine room – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 25 April 2008. 
  25. ^ "Watch This Space Festival", National Theatre


  • Hall, Peter, (edited Goodwin, John) (1983): Peter Hall's Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle (1972–79). Hamish Hamilton, London. ISBN 0-241-11047-5.
  • Goodwin, Tim (1988), Britain's Royal National Theatre: The First 25 Years. Nick Hern Books, London. ISBN 1-85459-070-7.

See also

External links


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