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Mark Shenton’s top venues: National Theatre

The National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile The National Theatre with its temporary theatre in the foreground. Photo: Philip Vile
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When it comes to drawing comparisons between London and New York, the two world capitals of English-speaking theatre are more or less equally pegged in the number of commercial theatres (West End and Broadway), and full-time producing companies such as the Royal Court, Donmar, Almeida, Hampstead and Tricycle in London being matched in New York by Lincoln Centre Theatre, Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club (each of which also have Broadway homes in addition to off-Broadway scale ones, plus Second Stage which soon will have), Public, New York Theatre Workshop, Signature and Atlantic Theatres. We’re also evenly matched for summer outdoor theatres, with the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park matched there by the Delacorte in Central Park (operated by the Public Theatre). A production of Into the Woods even transferred from the former to the latter a few years ago. And there are, of course, also thriving fringe scenes in both cities.

But where London stands head and shoulders over New York is in having the National Theatre – a venue that originates up to 20 original productions a year. Many of them emerge from its developmental workshop the NT Studio (adjoining the Old Vic) that exists to nurture and grow shows from the ground up, as happened there with its stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. This has been the NT’s biggest-ever commercial success – although about to close in the West End on March 12 after a run of eight years, it still continues in China, and is due to embark on a new UK tour in September 2017.

The National Theatre is also represented in the West End and on Broadway by a stage version of Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – the sole open-ended play running on Broadway now, where the business model nowadays is for shows to play limited 12 to 14-week seasons only. Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things is about to transfer from the Dorfman, where it premiered last year, to the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre (from March 15).

Over the years, the NT has provided a steady stream of shows to populate the West End, originally via West End producers like Michael Codron and Robert Fox but latterly under its own steam, not to mention taking shows further afield to Broadway and beyond. Though such transfers are a useful source of extra income for the theatre, it is not the be-all and end-all of what it exists to do: to create great theatre at its South Bank home. It is a beacon of excellence for British theatre – while there are now also national theatres in Scotland and Wales, those lead peripatetic existences, without a home to call their own.

The National, by contrast, is bound by the walls of the building built specially to house it, which this year celebrates the 40th anniversary since it opened in 1976. The NT company was originally established at the Old Vic and Chichester under the leadership of Laurence Olivier in 1963 .

Even if its Denys Lasdun modernist masterpiece of a building famously has its detractors – Prince Charles once dubbed it “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting” – it has become a beloved theatre factory on the inside. That’s partly thanks to the sheer, sustained quality of the work presented under its roof. You always arrive at the NT with a spring to your step. It has long presented an accessible face to the world, with public spaces, bars and cafes open throughout the day. You can pop in, without a ticket, to see an exhibition, browse the all-day bookshop, or just have a coffee and use the free WiFi.

These public spaces, as well as backstage ones and the addition of the new Max Rayne Centre at the rear of the building that house and make publicly visible its design studios and technical workshops, were recently refurbished as part of the NT Future’s £70million redevelopment project, that earned it The Stage’s 2016 award for Theatre Building of the Year. As the citation put it:

In 2015, the juggernaut regeneration of the National Theatre culminated in the completion of the Cottesloe’s refurbishment. The venue reopened as the Dorfman, the new Clore Learning Centre and production workshop were created, and the organisation’s public spaces, bars and cafes were transformed. All this has reinvigorated the NT’s place on the South Bank as well as the way it is used by artists, staff and audiences… The sheer scale of the project, which has led to the complete reorientation of the NT, constitutes a major shift in the way the theatre views its operations and is viewed by others. It is the most significant refurbishment of the theatre since its creation in 1964, updating ideas of what a national institution can and should offer, and has helped make the concrete edifice more welcoming to visitors.

The succession of variously visionary, combative artistic directors that followed Olivier – the Cambridge University quartet of Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner – have now been followed by Rufus Norris, an actor-turned-director, like Olivier, who is not Oxbridge educated. He has only been in the post for 10 months, and has already ignited controversy for some of his choices, as I wrote here just the other day. If there have inevitably been missteps like Wonder.land that he directed, there have also been such thrilling triumphs as Husbands and Sons (now transferred to Manchester’s Royal Exchange), the aforementioned People, Places and Things and the current Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

It is too early to make a definitive judgement on his regime. In any case, part of the point of the National is not to turn out hit after hit, but that it also has the right to miss, too. It has to appeal not to a single constituency of interests but a wide one: as Norris himself said recently: “I would love it to be a broader church and I think it is very important that we reflect the city and the country we are in.”

The NT isn’t a single audience but a collection of different ones – and thanks to Hytner and his executive director Nick Starr’s ground-breaking Travelex that was introduced when they first arrived in 2003 (and continues today), it is more accessible than ever. The annual season offers significantly cheaper ticket prices than at other times of the year, but cheaper seats are also available year-round, including the front rows of the stalls of the Olivier and Lyttelton, which are the cheapest in the house. Hytner and Starr also bequeathed the NT another significant legacy: the introduction of NT Live that has enabled its productions to travel far beyond its own walls to cinemas around the country and the world. Playwright James Graham recently told me in a Big Interview for The Stage of the joy of being able to watch his own play This House in a cinema in New York. “I never thought I’d be surrounded by Americans hearing them laughing at my jokes about my own MP from Ashfield. It was so cool, so brilliant.”

So is the National: one of the greatest theatrical organisations in the world. Rufus Norris will, in turn, be making his own innovations: he’s already created the New Work Department, which brings together the theatre’s literary department and Studio and will be presided over by his deputy artistic director Ben Power with a declared aim that become “the engine room of the National’s creative process, developing work and artists for the NT’s stages and beyond.”

This is going to take time to bear fruit. As Lyn Gardner recently wrote in The Guardian:

One of the great challenges that faces any new regime at any theatre is how to craft the first couple of years from a standing start. What a new artistic team needs is a full larder of almost-ready development projects it can pick and choose to spark off each other. That’s particularly true if you are trying to nudge a theatre in a new direction, engage with a wider range of artists and appeal to a broader audience.

As the department grows and develops new work, Gardner quotes Power as saying that they’ll have to do “two types of gardening at the same time: planting really deep and at the same time growing stuff quickly. Not quicker than it needs, but being instantly responsive and finding a place in the repertoire as quickly as possible, so that artists and audiences understand what we stand for and what we want to be.”

Power anticipates that in five years time, the Dorfman and Lyttelton Theatre are to have a significantly “different identity” from what they have today. If this comes off, it could be the biggest revolution yet in the history of the NT. I, for one, can’t wait to see it.


National Theatre

South Bank, London SE1 9PX
Box office: 020 7452 3000
Administration: 020 7452 3333
Website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Director of the National Theatre: Rufus Norris
Executive Director: Lisa Burger
Deputy Artistic Director: Ben Power
Associates: Paul Arditti, Paule Constable, Dominic Cooke, Marianne Elliott, Nadia Fall, Simon Godwin, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Tom Morris, Lyndsey Turner

Casting: Wendy Spon
Commercial Operations: Robyn Lines
Communications: Martin Prendergast
Development: John Rodgers
Finance: Liz Fosbury
Learning: Alice King-Farlow
Marketing: Alex Bayley
NT Productions: Chris Harper
Press: Vicky Kington
Production and planning: Sacha Milroy

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