Mark Shenton’s top venues: NT Temporary Theatre (formerly the Shed)

The National's Temporary Theatre. Photo: Phillip Vile
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Not all theatres are built to last. The National Theatre is a building but it was also an idea, and that idea was made concrete in every sense when it moved into its purpose-built home on the South Bank in 1976, after originally being based at the nearby Old Vic.

Britain’s two other National Theatres – the National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales – have dispensed with the idea of being building-based entirely, and go wherever their work takes them. However, the National Theatre of Scotland has recently embarked on establishing a permanent administrative and rehearsal home in north-east Glasgow in a building on the canalside area of Speirs Wharf.

But England’s National Theatre, for all that it is defined by the building it occupies, has sometimes yearned to break out of its physical confines: it long ago sprawled outside the physical building to have work play out on its terraces and front courtyard, particularly in the annual summer season of programmed outdoor work. With its three main theatres – the amphitheatre thrust-stage Olivier (1,160 seats), the traditional proscenium arched Lyttelton (890 seats) and the Dorfman (previously called the Cottesloe, with 400 seats) – it has nearly 2,500 seats a night to fill.

Mark Shenton’s top venues: the National Theatre

It has, however, long lacked the smaller studio space that has so galvanised British theatre practice over the past couple of decades. Theatres such as the Donmar (251 seats), Bush (144 seats), the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (up to 90 seats) and the Finborough (50 seats) have an entirely disproportionate impact on the theatrical ecology relative to their size. Not many people, comparatively speaking, get to see shows that are put on there – yet they get spoken and written about as much as any theatre in Britain. And the work lives on far beyond them: the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs was the original home of Sarah Kane’s plays and The Rocky Horror Show, Nick Payne’s Constellations and Jim Cartwright’s Road.

But filling 400 seats, as a new play has to do in the Dorfman, is a much bigger ask than filling those studio spaces, numerically speaking. The recently completed NT Futures project saw a wholesale redevelopment of the National but particularly the flank that includes what used to be the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman), whose foyer spaces have been entirely remodelled; it also features the new Max Rayne Centre that includes scenery and design workshops that have been opened up to public view, plus the addition of the new Clore Learning Centre.

These works necessitated the closure of what used to be the Cottesloe, and the National’s solution was to build what was initially called the Shed and subsequently came to be referred to as the Temporary Theatre. It was initially intended to be only a one-year project while the Cottesloe was out of action, but has expanded to become a distinctive part of the National offering – not just because of its striking physical presence, which plonked a bright red cube in front of the building.

The Temporary Theatre. Photo: Samuel Smith
The Temporary Theatre. Photo: Samuel Smith

There were some grumblings when it first opened about the fact that it wiped out Theatre Square, where the outdoor summer programme used to take place, but that work has continued to flourish a bit further along the river front. I personally grumbled when I first went there at the lack of physical comfort in the crushed seating in the space. I found an unexpected ally when the National’s former executive director Nick Starr told me he agreed – but only after he, too, suffered back problems.

But philosophically the space has made a big impact in a short time. As Ben Power, now the National’s deputy artistic director to Rufus Norris, who was put in charge of its programming during Hytner’s reign, has commented:

The programming in the Temporary Theatre has allowed the National Theatre to take risks, celebrating emerging writers and directors as well as musicians, comedians, dancers and established theatremakers taking new approaches. Experimentation is essential to theatre’s continuing evolution, and by combining a new spirit of adventure with the NT’s renowned high standards we have attempted to meet our original vision of a space for exciting, transformative and cutting-edge work.

Critics have agreed: in her recent review of Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State, the verbatim play that is the last show to be presented there, Susannah Clapp wrote in The Observer:

The National is a trinity. Varied programming in its three theatres is crucial; you don’t want pallid, differently sized replicas. The Temporary Theatre, erected in 2013 and intended to remain for one year, has helped this variety. The red wooden box, like an upside-down table dropped from the sky, has been an on-the-hop arena, a spur to invention. It is dismantled next month, with the Dorfman taking on its rapid-response, experimental brief. Its last play is the right one.

It runs to May 7, and on May 4 there will be a free platform performance to celebrate its impact, with a panel that includes Norris, Power and writer and actor Michaela Coel (who has performed three shows there). A full 764 performances of 32 plays have been staged in the past three years there, playing to audiences of more than 156,000 people and achieving some 91% capacity. Moreover, 34% of its audience have been under 35.

In a feature for The Guardian this week, Lyn Gardner has applauded what it stood for – and has hopes for what it will mean for the future.

The red box attached to an outside wall of the NT has created a significant shift in what the National Theatre represents. Geographically it was close to the NT; its identity was a world away. Its rough and ready, provisional quality has been one of its many strengths, presumably making the NT feel more comfortable in programming contemporary theatre that is often very nimble in its ability to respond to what is happening in the world. The verbatim show Another World is an example of that, but so too were the many shows, from The Hush to Blurred Lines, that played with form.

What I hope – and all the omens are very good – is that the closure of the Temporary Space will not mark the end of something, but the start of new era at the National, one begun under Hytner and now being even more thoroughly embraced by Norris. It’s a mindset that understands theatre must be far more progressive, diverse and porous in every way if it is to become truly national. That means in the stories it tells, the way it tells them, the audiences who come and the artists making work.

Hear, hear. And even if the red box will soon be no more, its legacy will live on.

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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