The Royal National Theatre in London, commonly known as the National Theatre (NT), is one of the United Kingdom's three most prominent publicly funded performing arts venues, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House. Internationally, it is known as the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Founded by Laurence Olivier in 1963, many well-known actors have performed at the National Theatre. Until 1976, the company was based at The Old Vic theatre in Waterloo. The current building 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 tours productions at theatres across the United Kingdom. The theatre has transferred numerous productions to Broadway and toured some as far as China, Australia and New Zealand. However, touring productions to European cities was suspended in February 2021 over concerns about uncertainty over work permits, additional costs and delays because of Brexit. Permission to add the "Royal" prefix to the name of the theatre was given in 1988, but the full title is rarely used. The theatre presents a varied programme, including Shakespeare, 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. However, the post-2020 covid repertoire model became straight runs, required by the imperatives of greater resource efficiency and financial constraint coupled with the preference (and competition for the availability) of creatives working across stage and screen, thus bringing it in line with that of most theatres.
In June 2009, the theatre began National Theatre Live (NT Live), a programme of simulcasts of live productions to cinemas, first in the United Kingdom and then internationally. The programme began with a production of Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, which was screened live in 70 cinemas across the UK. NT Live productions have since been broadcast to over 2,500 venues in 60 countries around the world. In November 2020, National Theatre at Home was announced. It is a video on demand streaming service, specifically created for National Theatre Live recordings. Videos of plays are added every month, and can be "rented" for temporary viewing, or unlimited recordings can be watched through a monthly or yearly subscription programme.
The NT had an annual turnover of approximately £105 million in 2015–16, of which earned income made up 75% (58% from ticket sales, 5% from NT Live and Digital, and 12% from commercial revenue such as in the restaurants, bars, bookshop, etc.). Support from Arts Council England provided 17% of income, 1% from Learning and Participation activity, and the remaining 9% came from a mixture of companies, individuals, trusts and foundations.
In 1847, a critic using the pseudonym Dramaticus published a pamphlet 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. 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 form a permanent memorial to Shakespeare; an "exemplary theatre" company producing at the highest level of quality; and a centre from which appreciation of great drama could be spread as part of education throughout the country.
Finally, in 1948, the London County Council (LCC) presented a site close to the Royal Festival Hall for the purpose, so the National Theatre Act, offering financial support, was passed by Parliament in 1949. 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. The Government still tried to apply unacceptable conditions to save money, attempting to force the amalgamation of the existing publicly supported companies: the RSC, Sadler's Wells and Old Vic.
The Company remained at the Old Vic until 1977, when construction of the Olivier was complete.
Theatre building and architecture
Entrance to the National Theatre
The National Theatre building houses three separate theatres. Additionally, a temporary structure was added in April 2013 and closed in May 2016.
Named after the theatre's first artistic director, Laurence Olivier, this is the main auditorium, modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus; it has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for 1160 people. A "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.
Named after Lloyd Dorfman (philanthropist and chairman of Travelex Group), the Dorfman is "the smallest, the barest and the most potentially flexible of the National Theatre houses . . . a dark-walled room" with an audience capacity of 400. It was formerly known as the Cottesloe Theatre (named after Lord Cottesloe, Chairman of the South Bank Theatre Board), a name which ceased to be used with the theatre's closure under the National's NT Future redevelopment.
The enhanced theatre reopened in September 2014 under its new name.
The Temporary Theatre, formerly called The Shed, was a 225-seat black box theatre which opened in April 2013 and featured new works; it closed in May 2016, following the refurbishment of the Dorfman Theatre.
In 2015 British artist Carl Randall painted a portrait of actress Katie Leung standing in front of The Shed as part of the artist's "London Portraits" series, where he asked various cultural figures to choose a place in London for the backdrop of their portraits. Leung explained she chose The Shed as her backdrop because she performed there in the 2013 play The World of Extreme Happiness, and also because "... it's a temporary theatre, it's not permanent, and I wanted to make it permanent in the portrait".
Axis view of Royal National Theatre to Olivier Theatre fly tower
Detail of the National Theatre showing the grain of the formwork
The style of the National Theatre building was described by architecture historian 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 found the Béton brut concrete both inside and out overbearing. Most notoriously, Charles III 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, a man not noted for his enthusiasm for brutalist architecture, wrote to Lasdun stating ironically 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 angles...it has that inevitable and finished look that great work does."
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.
Despite the controversy, the theatre has been a Grade II* listed building since 1994. 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. 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. A key intended viewing axis is from Waterloo Bridge at 45 degrees head on to the fly tower of the Olivier Theatre (the largest and highest element of the building) and the steps from ground level. This view is largely obscured now by mature trees along the riverside walk but it can be seen in a more limited way at ground level.
Foyers and interior spaces
The National Theatre's foyers are open to the public, with a large theatrical bookshop, restaurants, bars and exhibition spaces. The terraces and foyers of the theatre complex have also been used for ad hoc, short seasonal and experimental performances and screenings. The riverside forecourt of the theatre is used for regular season of open-air performances in the summer months.
The Clore Learning Centre is a new dedicated space for learning at the National Theatre. It offers events and courses for all ages, exploring theatre-making from playwriting to technical skills, often led by the NT's own artists and staff. One of its spaces is The Cottesloe Room, so called in recognition of the original name of the adjacent theatre.
The dressing rooms for all actors are arranged around an internal light-well and air-shaft and so their windows each face each other. This arrangement has led to a tradition whereby, on the opening night (known as "Press Night") and closing night of any individual play, when called to go to "beginners" (opening positions), the actors will go to the window and drum on the glass with the palms of their hands.
Backstage tours run throughout the day and the Sherling High Level Walkway, open daily until 7.30 pm, offers visitors views into the backstage production workshops for set construction and assembly, scenic painting and prop-making.
2013 saw the commencement of the "NT Future" project; a redevelopment of the National Theatre complex which it was estimated would cost about £80m.
National Theatre Studio
The Studio building across the road from the Old Vic on The Cut in Waterloo. The Studio used to house the NT's workshops, but became the National's research and development wing in 1984. The Studio building houses the New Work Department, the Archive, and the NT's Immersive Storytelling Studio.
The Studio is a Grade II listed building designed by architects Lyons Israel Ellis. Completed in 1958, the building was refurbished by architects Haworth Tompkins and reopened in autumn 2007.
The National Theatre Studio was founded in 1985 under the directorship of Peter Gill, who ran it until 1990. Laura Collier became Head of the Studio in November 2011, replacing Purni Morrell who headed the Studio from 2006. Following the merge of the Studio and the Literary Department under the leadership of Rufus Norris, Emily McLaughlin became the Head of New Work in 2015.
National Theatre Live is an initiative which broadcasts performances of their productions (and from other theatres) to cinemas and arts centres around the world. It began in June 2009 with Helen Mirren in Jean Racine's Phedre, directed by Nicholas Hytner, in the Lyttelton Theatre.
One Man, Two Guvnors returned to cinema screens in the United States, Canada and Australia for a limited season in Spring 2012. Danny Boyle's Frankenstein also returned to cinema screens worldwide for a limited season in June and July 2012.
National Theatre Connections is the annual nationwide youth theatre festival run by the National Theatre. The festival was founded in 1995, and features ten new plays for young people written by leading playwrights. Productions are staged by schools and youth groups at their schools and community centres, and at local professional theatre hubs. One of the productions of each play is invited to perform in a final festival at the National Theatre, usually in the Olivier Theatre and Dorfman Theatre.
National Theatre Collection
The National Theatre Collection (formerly called On Demand. In Schools) is the National Theatre's free production streaming service for educational establishments worldwide, which is free to UK state schools. The service is designed for use by teachers and educators in the classroom, and features recordings of curriculum-linked productions filmed in high definition in front of a live audience.
In 2018, the National Theatre reported that over half of UK state secondary schools have registered to use the service. On Demand. In Schools won the 2018 Bett Award for Free Digital Content or Open Educational Resources.
In March 2020, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the National Theatre Collection was made available for pupils and teachers to access at home to aid blended learning programmes. In April 2020, six new titles were added to the service to bring the total up to 30 productions. These include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (directed by Benedict Andrews for the Young Vic, starring Sienna Miller and Jack O'Connell) and Small Island (directed by Rufus Norris for the National Theatre).
Public Acts is a community participation programme from the National Theatre working with theatres and community organisations across the UK to create large-scale new work. The first Public Acts production was Pericles in August 2018, at the National Theatre, in the Olivier Theatre. The Guardian described this as 'a richly sung version with brilliant performances from a cast of hundreds.' The second production was As You Like It performed in August 2019 at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch.
Since 2019, Public Acts has been working on a third production in Doncaster in partnership with Cast and six local community partners. The new adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle was originally planned for 2020 but has been postponed, due to COVID-19.
In December 2020, in partnership with The Guardian, Public Acts released an online musical called We Begin Again by James Graham (Quiz) as a music video and a standalone track released by Broadway Records.
River Stage is the National Theatre's free outdoor summer festival that place over five weekends outside the National Theatre in its north-east cornersquare. It is accompanied by a number of additional street food stalls and bars run by the NT.
The annual "Watch This Space" festival was a free summer-long celebration of outdoor theatre, circus and dance, which was replaced in 2015 by the River Stage festival.
"Watch This Space" featured events for all ages, including workshops and classes for children and adults. "Watch This Space" had a strong national and international relationships with leading and emerging companies working in many different aspects of the outdoor arts sector. Significant collaborators and regular visitors included Teatr Biuro Podrozy, The Whalley Range All Stars, Home Live Art, Addictive TV, Men in Coats, Upswing, Circus Space, Les Grooms, StopGAP Dance Theatre, metro-boulot-dodo, Avanti Display, The Gandinis, Abigail Collins, The World-famous, Ida Barr (Christopher Green), Motionhouse, Mat Ricardo, The Insect Circus, Bängditos Theater, Mimbre, Company FZ, WildWorks, Bash Street Theatre, Markeline, The Chipolatas, The Caravan Gallery, Sienta la Cabeza, Theatre Tuig, Producciones Imperdibles and Mario Queen of the Circus.
The festival was set up by its first producer Jonathan Holloway, who was succeeded in 2005 by Angus MacKechnie.
Whilst the Theatre Square space was occupied by the Temporary Theatre during the NT Future redevelopment, the "Watch This Space" festival was suspended. but held a small number of events in nearby local spaces. In 2013 the National announced that there would be a small summer festival entitled "August Outdoors" in Theatre Square. Playing Fridays and Saturdays only, the programme included The Sneakers and The Streetlights by Half Human Theatre, The Thinker by Stuff & Things, H2H by Joli Vyann, Screeving by Urban Canvas, Pigeon Poo People by The Natural Theatre Company, Capses by Laitrum, Bang On!, Caravania! by The Bone Ensemble, The Hot Potato Syncopators, Total Eclipse of the Head by Ella Good and Nicki Kent, The Caravan Gallery, Curious Curios by Kazzum Theatre and The Preeners by Canopy.
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, not least as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In 1969 the National Theatre Company received a Special Tony Award which was accepted by Olivier at the 23rd Tony Awards. He became a life peer in 1970, for his services to theatre, and stepped down in 1973.
Peter Hall took over to manage the move to the South Bank. His career included running the Arts Theatre between 1956 and 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 the permanent Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1960, also establishing a new RSC base at the Aldwych Theatre for transfers to the West End. He was artistic director at the National Theatre between 1973 and 1988. During this time he directed major productions for the Theatre, and also some opera at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House. After leaving, he ran his own company at The Old Vic and summer seasons at the Theatre Royal, Bath also returning to guest direct Tantalus for the RSC in 2000 and Bacchai in the National Theatre's Olivier and Twelfth Night in the Dorfman some years later. In 2008, he opened a new theatre, The Rose, and remained its Director Emeritus until his death in 2017.
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, directing My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and South Pacific.
In April 2003, Nicholas Hytner took over as artistic director. 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. In April 2013 Hytner announced he would step down as artistic director at the end of March 2015.
Amongst Hytner's innovations were NT Future, the National Theatre Live initiative of simulcasting live productions, and the Entry Pass scheme, allowing young people under the age of 26 to purchase tickets for £7.50 to any production at the theatre.
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. The National Theatre Board was established in February 1963, formally gaining the Royal prefix in 1990.