Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Back Stage at the National Theatre Wednesday 17th April

Whilst the great and the good were attending St Paul’s Cathedral for the funeral of the longest serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century, and indeed the only woman to lead a political party, I was safely away from the madding crowds across the river.

National Theatre by NightNational Theatre by dayThe National Theatre has a worldwide reputation for its award-winning shows, with recent successes including the smash-hits War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors and The House.  In its three theatres, the National presents over 20 new productions each year, from new plays to classics, comedies and musicals.  I had an invitation to see behind the scenes with the Vintry and Dowgate Ward Club and as a former thespian myself this could not be missed. NT on South Bank was designed with three stages, which opened individually between 1976 and 1977.   It was controversially constructed internally and externally in grey concrete, albeit textured by the widespread use of wood shuttering. Despite the controversy over its fairly brutalist style of architecture, the theatre has been a Grade II* listed building since 1994 and has appeared simultaneously in the top ten "most popular" and "most hated" London buildings in opinion surveys.

We heard from our excellent guide that the theatre presents a varied programme, including Shakespeare (currently Othello) and other international classic drama; and new plays by contemporary playwrights. Each auditorium in the theatre can run up to three shows in repertoire thus further widening the number of plays which can be put on during any one season, or indeed any one week with alternation of plays within a week within the same stage venue.
The National Theatre building has traditionally had three separate auditoria:
The Olivier Theatre (named after the theatre's first artistic director, Laurence Olivier), was first to open in 1976 and is the main auditorium, and we learned it was modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus; it has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for 1,160 people. It boasts an ingenious 'drum revolve' (a five-storey revolving stage section) which extends eight metres beneath the stage.  The drum has two rim revolves and two platforms, each of which can carry ten tons, facilitating huge and rapid scenery changes. Its design ensures that the audience's view is not blocked from any seat, and that the audience is fully visible to actors from the stage's centre. We also viewed the Lyttelton Theatre (named after Oliver Lyttelton, the National Theatre's first board chairman) has a proscenium arch design and can accommodate an audience of 890. The Cottesloe Theatre was a small, adaptable studio space which was in fact the venue on my last evening at the NT to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  However this amazing production about autism has sinced been switched to the West End and the Cottesloe has been closed. The space is currently being refurbished and also renamed.   Instead we were treated to a visit to the Shed, a new 225 seat temporary (and contemporary) performance space at the front of the building which has just been opened. The distinctive 'red wooden shed' structure to the front of the NT will only be used for just a year.

The interesting Backstage tour included a look at the rehearsal spaces and workshops where scenery and props are prepared. We were also amazed at the detailed authenticity of costumes – made to a higher standard than strictly necessary but helping actors to get into the character by the feel and restriction they give.   

At the conclusion of the tour I discovered that the upper terraces of the NT provide excellent views of London across the river, with many flags visible at half mast in honour of Baroness Margaret Thatcher.


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