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Tracing the National Theatre’s past through 50 years of eye-catching posters

Poster designs for productions of Amadeus from 1979 and 2016 show how the National's aesthetic has changed over the years
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The National celebrates half a century of publicity posters in its new exhibition. Nick Smurthwaite explores the changing face of what its creative director calls ‘promotion in its purest form’

Nothing evokes a theatre’s past like its posters. A new exhibition of the National Theatre’s posters stretching back to the 1960s, serves as a reminder not just of the iconic productions, but also the outstanding graphic images that brought them to the theatregoing public’s attention.

The National keeps copies of all its posters – estimated to be more than 1,700 – in its in-house archive, and reprints of many of them are available to buy online. But for theatre and graphic design buffs, there is nothing to beat the thrill of seeing them all in the flesh, artfully displayed and accompanied by explanatory and analytical notes by the show’s curator, Rick Poynor, a leading design academic.

“The posters are both a history of design at the National Theatre and a case study of the way the poster as a medium has evolved in Britain over the last half century,” writes Poynor in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

Since the National’s graphic output was very much determined by whoever headed up the department, Poynor has divided the exhibition into five historical periods, covering the successive tenures of Ken Briggs (1963-74), Richard Bird (1975-86), Michael Mayhew (1976-2009), Charlotte Wilkinson (2004-14), and Ollie Winser (2014-present).

There are clear distinctions in the different approaches of each graphics chief. “You start to see moments when significant trends are happening,” explains Poynor, who spent weeks poring over the posters in the NT Archive.

“Ken Briggs was heavily influenced by post-war Swiss typography – very clean, clear, structured, sans serif, not dissimilar to Penguin Books of that era. He used mostly cropped photographs and Letraset [rub-on lettering] for his poster designs.

‘The posters are both a history of design at the National and a case study of how the poster has evolved in the last half-century’

“There was a sudden switch to illustrative imagery when Richard Bird took over the reins. Bird used a lot of historical archive images in all sorts of interesting and imaginative ways, along with handmade lettering,” he says pointing to the striking fox image from The Book of Beasts, for Volpone.

Poynor describes Bird as a “natural poster designer” with a large, expressive range and versatility. “Everything he did had confidence and fluency. I feel he has been rather overlooked – perhaps because he died in 1993 – and deserves to be brought back into the discussion.”

Another quantum leap occurred when Bird’s assistant Michael Mayhew took over in the mid-1980s and shifted the emphasis back to photography, since that was his great passion. He would commission eye-catching photographs of leading actors or source archive pictures from agencies such as Getty Images or Corbis.

Mayhew was also the last of the ‘lone wolf’ heads of graphics who preferred to be left to his own devices, answerable only to the director, without a lot of discussion or conferring with other departments.

“He’d do his own thing and if they didn’t like it, he’d go away and come up with something else,” says Poynor. “Historically, graphic designers had a lot more freedom because they did a lot of things the marketing people subsequently took over. Gradually, as marketing started to become more influential, they became as important as the graphic designers.

“Looking back at the time of Bird and Mayhew, it is remarkable what they achieved with a less structured, more intuitive way of producing graphic art.”

The shift to a more collegiate approach to graphic design happened under Charlotte Wilkinson, whose background as an art director meant she was used to working in a team. Like Mayhew – she was his assistant – Wilkinson favoured photography and was the first head of graphics to introduce the idea of incorporating production photographs into poster design.

Ollie Winser, the present incumbent, also believes in a more collegiate approach to the job. “I arrived at the end of Nick Hytner’s tenure as artistic director. He respected ideas and showed supportive interest in what we were doing.

“When he directed The Hard Problem, he brought Tom Stoppard in to the graphics department and we had a conversation about the poster design. Now I try to do that whenever possible, to come up with ideas and definitions. You can set out how a show is best packaged for an audience.”

Winser says it used to be rare for a director or writer to come to the table with preconceived notions of what they want.

“Mostly they defer to our expertise,” he says. “I usually ask the writer and the director to describe the play in their own words, and what kind of audience they are expecting to come to see the show. That can have a bearing on the poster design.”

Another significant driver in shaping the National’s poster design comes from the top. When Hytner became director in 2003, he made it clear that the NT brand was more important than a lot of superfluous text. “It was a significant moment in our graphics history,” says Winser.

It was then that the NT brand emerged as urgent, simplified, stripped down and almost news-like, Poynor says.

“There was always a commitment to in-house graphic design on the part of all the directors, from Olivier onwards,” he continues. “They encouraged the development and evolution of a distinctive look for NT graphics, rather than simply appointing someone within the organisation to liaise with external agencies, which would certainly have been an option.”

Digital technology is having a profound effect at the National Theatre and beyond. Winser takes a pragmatic view of the NT’s graphics output: “You take inspiration
from all quarters. We’ve got a very postmodern magpie approach. There isn’t one design ideology here, rather a whole array of different styles and approaches. If anything, our guiding principle is an antidote to the more stylised approach of the West End.”

Technology and design, or more generally creativity, have always gone hand in hand, he says, and at the National it has allowed the department to go beyond the poster, to what Poynor calls “an infinite canvas”.

“The technology and the media landscape have given us such a variety of creative opportunities,” Winser says. “In a way, we’re not graphic designers in any traditional sense. We don’t just put image and type together but create ideas, art direct photoshoots, make films, animations, microsites and apps.”

They still regard the poster highly, he says – “It’s the purest form of promotion we create” – but now the creative campaigns for shows are spread across a range of formats from on-site installations to cinema trailers.

“Online advertising through social media, which is often viewed on mobile phones and frequently appears in a feed with lots of other content or advertising, has to work in a similar way to posters,” he says.

“Whatever the media landscape, the creative idea and its execution have to catch your attention. It has to create a moment of emotional engagement amid the noise we’re constantly bombarded with.”
Poynor concludes: “The poster is the ultimate test for a designer – you can fill this rectangle whichever way you like. If you like, it’s the graphic equivalent of the pop song, which can have incredible expressive power even though it is only three minutes long. Both are popular forms, the opposite of highbrow, they must communicate instantly to anyone who sees the poster or hears the song.”

National Theatre Posters is at the Wolfson Gallery, National Theatre, from October 6 to March 31

Rick Poynor’s accompanying book, National Theatre Posters: A Design History, is published by Unit Editions