Last week’s announcement of Nicholas Hytner’s departure from the National has given many of us, myself included, a chance to speculate already on his possible successor; but also to reflect on his achievements, which I had coincidentally already begun to do on the very day he revealed his plans to go, without yet knowing that he was doing so!
And it is generally agreed that he’s going to be a very tough act to follow. He and his also departing executive director Nick Starr have expanded the national and indeed international reach of the theatre as never before, with separate West End and North American departments set up. And they’ve also made the theatre more directly accessible, both with cheaper tickets via the Travelex scheme and cinema relays via NT Live.
They’ve also begun the first major overhaul of the theatre building since it first opened, with its £70m NT Future scheme. And on Tuesday, I saw where £1.2m of that has gone: on the building of the temporary Shed in front of the theatre, a bit like a mini-Battersea power station crossed with the Udderbelly’s purple cow that also sets up shop every year on the South Bank now, with four red chimneys instead of the Udderbelly’s teats.
This strikes me as one of the Hytner/Starr rare missteps. It’s not just that it’s a lot of money for a temporary structure, but also that it hasn’t bought very much. It’s delivered a Donmar-like auditorium, seating some 225 on two levels on three sides (against the Donmar’s 250). But it also feels like it has been brought in somewhat on the cheap, with the Cottesloe’s temporary additional seating brought over to crowd us uncomfortably in.
I know I’ve lately become more demanding of the seating arrangements at theatres I visit, following my hip replacement and then my more recent spinal surgery; but I was not alone the other night in expressing my dismay. A woman sitting next to me said her back was killing her afterwards.
Though a nicely informal additional foyer space has been created from the NT’s own river-level terrace, joining up with the existing coffee bar area, it feels like the building makes more of a statement outside than inside. Architect Paddy Dillon told The Guardian:
We wanted something festive, which would contrast with the brutalist concrete mass of Denys Lasdun’s building.
But if it’s festive on the outside, the less-than-festive seating inside make me want to avoid it in future. (And happily, I can, at least for the next two shows: I’ve seen both Bullet Catch and Mission Drift in earlier Edinburgh Fringe runs at the Traverse). And if the building itself is festive, it has also knocked out the National’s most festive annual event, the outdoor Watch this Space summer festival.
Of course, temporary spaces can be fun. I’ve previously loved the temporary spaces invented by the Almeida at the Gainsborough Studios and at King’s Cross. While shows usually come and go and theatres stay, it can be interesting when this is reversed. And sometimes, too, what were intended as temporary builds end up staying. Hampstead Theatre managed to stay put in their temporary portakabin for nearly 40 years before building their own bespoke building nearby, where it is yet to match its earlier success. More recently Stratford-upon-Avon announced their intention to keep the Courtyard, after all, that was built as a temporary replacement during the main house refurbishment, though it will be reconfigured to accommodate the return of the smaller The Other Place studio space.
I still wonder why the NT simply didn’t find an existing space to hire during the refurb of the Cottesloe. Perhaps it could have partnered with Southwark Playhouse who are about to open their own new home next month, and helped them to set it up as a venue (which would have also helped to put it on the map). The new Southwark Playhouse has two spaces – a 240 seat space (that the National could have used), and a 120 seat studio space (that Southwark could have begun their own programming in alongside it).
I’m looking forward to seeing the new Southwark Playhouse next month, and it’s especially convenient for me being just two minutes from where I live! It is itself a temporary space, before the venue can return to London Bridge where it has been promised space after the refurbishment of that station.
But just as I look forward to the return of one Southwark theatre, another is fighting for its life: the Union Theatre, winner of The Stage 100 Award for London fringe theatre of the year, has been served notice by its landlords Network Rail. According to artistic director Sasha Regan, they found out from a local newspaper that plans were in at Southwark Council; and some hours later, got an e-mail with their notice.
Let’s hope the plans can be reversed, or perhaps it, too, can find another home.