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A complete guide to the National Theatre in London

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A complete guide to the National Theatre in London

One of the biggest producing theatres in Britain and a landmark theatre in London, the National Theatre houses some of the world’s most exciting works and creatives throughout the year. In 2017, over three million tickets were sold for productions at the venue’s three theatres and live broadcasts, as well as tours across Britain. Find out all about the National Theatre in our guide, as we take you through the history of this iconic theatrical location.

Everything about the National Theatre in London

National Theatre shows

As part of a National Theatre touring production, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey returns to the West End for the first time in 60 years.  Jodie Prenger plays Helen, a woman who runs off with a car salesman leaving her 17-year-old daughter Jo to fend for herself. With original jazz compositions throughout, A Taste of Honey is a gritty, urban play depicting life in the north of England.

Where is the National Theatre?

The National Theatre isn’t in Theatreland. It’s on the Southbank, just next to Waterloo Bridge. We’ve put in a handy Google map for you to look around the area and see the venue.

When did the need for a National Theatre start?

First talks of the National Theatre happened in 1848, when the London publisher Effingham Wilson proposed the need for a national performance space. Supported by Charles Dickens, it seemed that the building would get the go-ahead quickly.

Even though there was support, it took a long time for the National Theatre to officially open. A campaign was put together in 1908 to boost the theatre’s necessity, stating that the theatre would “produce new plays and further the development of the modern drama” and stop plays of “great merit from falling into oblivion”. After many negotiations, a “National Theatre Act” was passed in 1948 and the National Theatre finally received building permission.

National Theatre
Photo credit: Elliot Brown (Flickr) under Creative Commons 2.0

In 1951, the government withdrew their support, declaring the country couldn’t afford the building. Later leasing the Old Vic, the “National Theatre Company” finally opened on 22nd October 1963. This acting company used the theatre until 1977 when the Olivier auditorium was finished and shows could be performed at the National Theatre.

Over the years, there have been numerous artistic directors who have worked on plays, musicals and performances. Shows at the National Theatre have won over 450 awards and have gone on to transfer in the West End and on Broadway.

What theatres are inside the National Theatre?

Inside, there are three auditoriums which can accommodate thousands of audience members each night.

Olivier Theatre: The biggest of the three spaces, it seats 1,150 people and has raked seating across two levels. In recent years, the Olivier Theatre has been home to large-scale productions. Named after Laurence Olivier, the drum revolve means the set can turn 360 degrees and can bring in props from above and below the stage. Some of the biggest shows at the Olivier Theatre include War Horse and Frankenstein.

Lyttelton Theatre: With a capacity of 890 people, the Lyttelton Theatre is the second-largest auditorium in the building. As a proscenium theatre, it has a basic stage layout and was named after Oliver Lyttelton, the chairman of the National Theatre. Recent shows in the Lyttleton Theatre include Network.

Dorfman Theatre: It may be the smallest venue, seating just 400 people, but the Dorfman Theatre’s flexibility makes it an exciting, versatile space. With seating arrangements tailor-made for each show, it gives the opportunity for shows to be performed in the round, in thrust or end-on, and allows for audience members to be close to the action.

From 2009 to 2016, a temporary theatre was installed outside the venue. Called The Shed, it was a bright red auditorium that seated 225 people, with The World of Extreme Happiness as a notable show.

What else can I do at the National Theatre?

Using the fly tower, art installations are often projected onto the wall where images are shown. Inside the building, art exhibitions are held which often coincide with shows that are running. Recent exhibitions include “Look At You Now”, exploring young theatre-makers.

As well as the three theatres, the National Theatre bookshop sells scripts, DVDs and novelty theatre gifts of productions currently in season, as well as older shows. When at the theatre, you’ll be able to browse from a broad range of merchandise.

A visit is made even better when going to one of the many restaurants inside the building. With a range of menus, customers can overlook the river and enjoy a delicious meal.

Who has been in charge of shows at the National Theatre?

Since 1963, there have been six artistic directors, each handling the organisation’s artistic direction and promoting the theatre. All of the previous artistic directors have been knighted for services to theatre.

Sir Laurence Olivier (1963-1973): Taking charge as the theatre’s first artistic director, Laurence Olivier never performed at the NT building audience members love today. Throughout his tenure, he starred in Othello as the title role alongside Maggie Smith, as well as being involved with The Merchant of Venice and The Recruiting Officer. Olivier also directed the first production – Hamlet.

Sir Peter Hall (1973 to 1988): The first artistic director at the Southbank location, directing the premiere of Waiting for Godot. Notably, he directed Antony and Cleopatra starring Judi Dench and starred in Happy Birthday, Sir Larry, a nod to Laurence Olivier’s 80th birthday.

Sir Richard Eyre (1988 to 1997): After working in theatres around the country, Richard Eyre was the third artistic director. During his time, he oversaw shows including The Madness of George III and directed King Lear.

Sir Trevor Nunn (1997 to 2003): Named one of the most influential people in British culture, Trevor Nunn had directed Les Miserables and Starlight Express before beginning his career at the National Theatre. Under him, the billings became more musical, with Honk winning the award for best new musical at the 2000 Olivier Awards.

Sir Nicholas Hytner (2003 to 2013): Directing The History Boys and One Man, Two Guvnors in his time as artistic director, he oversaw the social development of the theatre. When he was in charge, the National Theatre began to open on Sundays, broadcast live productions with “National Theatre Live” and ticket schemes at a reduced price, encouraging greater accessibility.

Rufus Norris (2015 onwards): Although he has held the artistic director position for a few years, the theatre has been home to notable productions including the Olivier award-winning Angels in America and Network starring Bryan Cranston, transferring to Broadway.

Biggest productions at the National Theatre

Since 1963, there have been hundreds of shows performed across the National Theatre. Here’s* just a few noteworthy shows that have taken place since it first opened.

The inaugural production for the National Theatre company was Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier in 1963. Peter O’ Toole played the title role in this Shakespeare tragedy, with Michael Redgrave as Claudius.

One of the first shows to be performed in the Southbank residence was No Man’s Land, a play by Harold Pinter. Dramatising the relationship between “life and death”, Peter Hall directed Pinter’s work, starring Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.

Guys and Dolls was the first musical to be performed at the National Theatre in 1982. Bringing a touch of 1920s gangster culture to Theatreland, the cast included Julie Covington and Bob Hoskins. When Trevor Nunn became the artistic director in 1997, this paved the way for more musicals to be performed at the National, including Oklahoma, Honk! and Anything Goes.

A star-studded line up including Antony Sher and Peter Hall performed in Happy Birthday, Sir Larry as an 80th birthday tribute to the founding artistic director, Laurence Olivier.

The History Boys was a major success for the theatre. Written by British playwright Alan Bennett, the play won best new play at the 2005 Olivier Awards, later winning best play at the 2006 Tony Awards. Opening in the Lyttelton Theatre, the original cast included James Corden, Russell Tovey, Dominic Cooper and Frances de la Tour.

With life-size horse puppets from the Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse opened in the Olivier Theatre in 2007. Based on the children’s text by Michael Morpurgo, it was adapted for stage by Nick Stafford and brought the tale of Joey and Albert to life. Performed to audiences around the world, the production was nominated for best play at the 2008 Olivier Awards. Kit Harington played Albert at the Southbank venue, as well as at the New London Theatre when the show transferred to the West End.

James Corden National Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors was a runaway success for the National. Opening in 2011, the production later transferred to Theatre Royal Haymarket and on Broadway. James Corden played the lead role, Francis Henshall in London and on Broadway, winning best performance by a leading actor at the 2012 Tony Awards.

Recent smash-hits across the theatre include the 2017 revival of Angels in America starring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and directed by Marianne Elliot. Imelda Staunton played Sally Plummer in Follies, winning best musical revival at the 2018 Olivier Awards. Network also received rave reviews, starring Bryan Cranston and directed by Ivo van Hove.

Interesting facts about the theatre

  • The roof of the National Theatre is home to around 60,000 bees and there are beehives on the roof to get more bees to the area and prevent the declining population of the flying insect. You can even buy the bees honey at the bookshop!
  • The building gained Grade II heritage listening in 1994. Other Grade II theatres in London include the Aldwych Theatre and St Martin’s Theatre.
  • In the Olivier Theatre, there is a 100-foot lift that can take actors from the basement to the stage.

Photo credit: Stephen Richards (Geograph) under Creative Commons 2.0