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What’s new at the National?

The entrance to the Dorfman is on the right and the large window looks on to the paint shop. Photo: Philip Vile
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Hard on the heels of the Festival Theatre in Chichester and the Stirling Award-winning Everyman in Liverpool, the £80 million refurbishment of the National Theatre was, perhaps, a tougher brief than most. That brief – dubbed NT Future – was handed to Haworth Tompkins Architects, theatre consultant Charcoalblue and regular collaborators Delstar Engineering and Northern Light. It included revisions to the front of house areas, the creation of the Clore Learning Centre and a new build in the form of the Max Rayne Centre, which houses new prop workshops, a new paint shop and facilities for designers.

Changing use of the area between the National building and the river meant that the north-east corner, which was not expected to have any public attention, had become part of a very popular riverside walk – an inappropriate place for rubbish bins. This is now a cafe and a bar which is not only more attractive but is intended to increase the National’s earned income.

The Dorfman's auditorium in its shallow raked configuration. Photo: Philip Vile
The Dorfman’s auditorium in its shallow raked configuration. Photo: Philip Vile

The main entrance has been radically reconfigured to improve the connection with the river walk and restore the original entry to the building, while the riverside bookshop has been relocated “to create life at the heart of the foyers”. The main foyers have themselves been refurbished, with signage based on the original design. All around the building, the landscape has been redesigned in collaboration with Edinburgh-based landscape architecture firm Gross Max to provide a more consistent setting for the NT. The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Terrace has been planted as a garden for the use of local residents as well as audiences.

Facilities for a wide range of courses on topics from playwriting to hands-on puppet-making are on hand in the Clore Learning Centre. Following the current fashion for ‘demystifying’ theatre, there is a new public walkway with its entrance on the upper level of the Dorfman foyer which is open throughout the day and allows visitors to look down on the prop-making workshop, the scenery assembly area and the paint frame.

On the walls of the walkway, blackboards provide up-to-date information on current National productions and what activities are taking place in the workshop that day. From outside the public can also view the scenic artists at work though a full height glass wall of the new building next to the Dorfman entrance.

The new design room on the first floor of the Max Rayne Centre is an open space for designers to work, with a small room for wet work and a model viewing room. It is also home to the library of the late Stefanos Lazarides, which was donated by the Motley Design Course when it ceased to exist.

But most attention will be drawn to the work on the Cottesloe Theatre, which reopened at the end of last year as the Dorfman.

The new prop making area. Photo: Philip Vile
The new prop making area. Photo: Philip Vile

Ian Mackintosh, largely responsible for the design of the Cottesloe in the 1970s, has noted that at that time the size of the foyer was a major influence on the capacity of the auditorium. The new development has addressed this and has enlarged the foyer by moving the glass wall which contains the entrance, by putting the toilets and cloakroom in the area which was previously the prop shop, by relocating the staircase to the upper level and by combining the bar and box office counters. A lift has been installed and the Cottesloe Room (part of the Clore Learning Centre) can be used as an overflow space for audiences.

The National’s priorities were to retain the flexibility of the space while improving audience comfort and sight lines and, with the enlarged foyer, increasing capacity. More space for seating was created by various means: the control room was moved up a floor to the higher level, staircases were relocated and the routing for the air- handling was changed. A redesign of the balcony fronts improved sight lines, as did the raising of the back row of balcony seats.

Moving the control rooms allowed for two rows of seats to be installed in their place, and two rows were also added in the other galleries. A further 10 seats have been added in the stalls by the use of strapontin seats (jump seats), as designed by Charcoalblue. These seats are folded up and attached to the end of the rows. They can be folded out into the aisle and, on the same principle as traditional tip-up seats, fold back out of the way when the user stands up. “Although they are fairly common in Europe, as far as we know this is the first time strapontin seating has been installed in a British theatre,” says Alex Wardle of Charcoalblue.

Although audiences might be more comfortable, they will be unaware of the most innovative aspect of the new seating. Paddy Dillon, from Haworth Tompkins, explains: “Charcoalblue came up with this brilliant concept whereby we could go from raked seating to flat floor and instead of the seats retracting in a bleacher at the back of the room we could fold them into the floor itself.

“Charcoalblue took technologies that existed before, stage elevators and seating that folds back into boxes, and put them together. That was a brilliant move because the theatre can quickly be configured into three different formats: flat floor, and two configurations of rake.”

This is achieved by each of the ten rows of stalls seating being on its own individual elevator.

Controlling airflow in a flexible theatre presents particular problems, and the design team has managed to provide air circulation grills under the raked seating when it is in use and for the flow to be diverted through free-standing outlets in the flat floor configuration.

the new cafe looking out on to the river walkway. Photo: Philip Vile
the new cafe looking out on to the river walkway. Photo: Philip Vile

The National’s commitment to energy-saving continues with rain water harvesting, the use of borehole water and electricity created by gas turbine. House lighting is now all LED using GDS fittings. It is expected that these measures will reduce energy costs by 25-30%.

From a technical point of view, access to the grid has been improved by the introduction of staircases rather than the vertical ladders of the Cottesloe. Lighting bridges have been extended to the sides of the theatre, allowing easier rigging access, and they have also been widened to include storage space, which means that equipment can remain at that level when not in use.

To facilitate lighting any part of the Dorfman, as the design dictates, the basic rig is only 24 moving lights, which allows lighting designers greater flexibility. There are 430 new ETC sensor dimmer racks.

It was central to the National’s brief that the theatre should remain as flexible a space as it has always been. Speaking about the new equipment, the NT’s technical director, Mark Dakin, observed that “we are still discovering all this stuff. Rules for Living is our third show and the third format”.

While comfort in all formats and ease of reconfiguration have been well planned, in anything other than end on each set design will present its own sight line problems. It will take time for designers and production managers to discover what works and what doesn’t. For example, The Hard Problem, presented in end-stage format, produced no major sight line problems but the set for Rules for Living is in traverse with additional banks of seating at balcony level at each end of the acting area. The width of the stage area results in restricted view from the top balcony and the height of scenic elements seriously impairs the view from the front of the side banks.

It is an expensive project but there is much to admire and no doubt some of the innovations will benefit other buildings in the future.

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