The National Theatre started out as a seed of an idea as early as the 1840s, when leaflets were handed out advocating for greater creative freedom in theatre, away from the pattern of only supporting what was commercial. The movement developed an ideology of a ‘national’ London-based theatre that would provide a space for Shakespeare plays and pioneering actors, setting an example for other British theatres.
This idealistic vision didn’t approach reality until 100 years later when the government proposed a site and offered financial backing. But it was still another 30 years of financial squabbles, site relocations and changing concepts before the National Theatre opened its doors in 1976.
The Greek-inspired Olivier Theatre, the biggest auditorium, opened with the Christopher Marlowe play Tamburlaine the Great. Named after the artistic director Laurence Olivier, who had managed the National Theatre Company before it had its own space, the Olivier Theatre was novel as it had two experimental pieces of technology – a ‘drum revolve’ and ‘sky hook’ – that allowed sets and equipment to be easily brought in and out of its third floor location. The Olivier Theatre also made history with 1982’s Guys and Dolls; not only was it the National’s first musical, but its success led to a UK tour and a West End run.
The National Theatre’s latest venture, National Theatre Live, has been a modern revolution in theatre, offering live feed screenings of its productions to cinemas across the country and abroad for those who may not be able to make it all the way to London. For those who believe in the universal accessibility of theatre, the National Theatre made one of the most significant steps.