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The Royal National Theatre (generally known as the National Theatre and commonly as The National) in Londonmarker is one of the United Kingdommarker's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company.

From its foundation in 1963 until 1976, the company was based at the Old Vicmarker theatre in Waterloomarker. The current building was designed by architects Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley and contains three stages, which opened individually between 1976 and 1977. It is located next to the Thames in the South Bankmarker area of central London.

Since 1988, the theatre has been permitted to call itself the Royal National Theatre, but the full title is rarely used. The theatre presents a varied programme, including Shakespeare 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.

The NT has an annual turnover of approximately £54 million (in 2008-09). Earned income made up approximately 54% of this total (34% from ticket sales and 20% as revenue from the restaurants, bookshops, etc). Support from the Arts Council and a number of smaller government grants provided 35% of this income, and the remaining 11% came from a mixture of private support from companies, individuals, trusts and foundations.


In 1847, a critic using the pseudonym Dramaticus published a pamphlet describing the parlous state of British theatre. Production of serious plays was restricted to the patent theatres, and new plays were subjected to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. At the same time, there was a burgeoning theatre sector featuring a diet of low melodrama and musical burlesque; but critics described British theatre as driven by commercialism and a 'star' system. There was a demand to commemorate serious theatre, with the "Shakespeare Committee" purchasing the playwright's birthplace for the nation demonstrating a recognition of the importance of 'serious drama'. The following year saw more pamphlets on a demand for a National Theatre from London publisher, Effingham William Wilson. The situation continued, with a renewed call every decade for a National Theatre, particularly around 1879 when the Comédie-Françaisemarker took a residency at the Gaiety Theatremarker, described in The Times as representing "the highest aristocracy of the theatre". The principal demands now coalesced around: a structure in the capital that would present "exemplary theatre"; that would form a permanent memorial to Shakespeare; a supported company that would represent the best of British acting; and a theatre school.

Some gains were made, when the Shakespeare Memorial Theatremarker was opened in Stratford upon Avonmarker on 23 April 1879, with the New Shakespeare Company; and Herbert Beerbohm Tree founded an Academy of Dramatic Art at Her Majesty's Theatremarker in 1904. This still left the capital without a national theatre. A London Shakespeare League was founded in 1902 to develop a Shakespeare National Theatre and – with the impending tri-centenary in 1916 of his death – in 1913 purchased land for a theatre in Bloomsburymarker, an aspiration which was interrupted by World War I. Finally, in 1948, the London County Council presented a site close to the Royal Festival Hallmarker for the purpose, and a "National Theatre Act", offering financial support, was passed by Parliamentmarker in 1949.

Ten years after the foundation stone had been laid in 1951, the Government declared that the nation could not afford a National Theatre – the LCC offered to waive any rent and pay half the construction costs. Still, the Government tried to apply unacceptable conditions in order to save money; attempting to force the amalgamation of the existing publicly supported companies: the RSC, Sadler's Wellsmarker and Old Vicmarker. In July 1962, with agreements finally reached, a board was set up to supervise construction and a separate board was constituted to run a National Theatre Company and lease the Old Vic theatre. The "National Theatre Company" opened on 22 October 1963 with Hamlet. The Company was to remain at the Old Vic until 1976, when construction of the Olivier was complete.


The National Theatre building houses three separate auditoria:
  • The Olivier Theatre (named after the theatre's first artistic director, Laurence Olivier), the largest space, is the main auditorium, and was modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurusmarker; it has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for about 1,160 people. It houses the Drum Revolve, a unique piece of stage technology which goes 8 m under the stage. The Drum has two rim revolves and two platforms which can take 10 tonnes, facilitating dramatic and fluid scenery changes.
  • The Lyttelton Theatre (named after Oliver Lyttelton, the first chairman of the National Theatre Board) has a proscenium arch design and holds up to 890 people.

  • The Cottesloe Theatre (named after Lord Cottesloe, chairman of the South Bank Theatre Board) is a small, adaptable studio space, designed by Iain Mackintosh, holding up to 400 people, depending on the seating configuration.

The riverside forecourt of the theatre is used for regular open-air performances in the summer months. The terraces and foyers of the theatre complex have also been used for ad hoc experimental performances. The decor is frequently dynamic, with recent displays of grass turf as 'outside wallpaper', different statues located in various random places and giant chairs and furniture in the forecourt.

The National Theatre's foyers are open to the public, with a large theatrical bookshop, restaurants, bars and exhibition spaces. Backstage tours run throughout the day, and there is live music every day in the foyer before performances.

The style of the National Theatre building, described by Mark Girouard as "an aesthetic of broken forms" at the time of opening. Architectural opinion was split at the time of construction. Even enthusiastic advocates of the Modern Movement such as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner have found the Béton brut concrete both inside and out overbearing. Most notoriously, Prince Charles described the building in 1988 as "a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting". Sir John Betjeman, however, a man not noted for his enthusiasm for brutalist architecture, was effusive in his praise and wrote to Lasdun stating that he "gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St. Paul's to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many has that inevitable and finished look that great work does."

Despite the controversy, the theatre has been a Grade II* listed building since 1994. Although the theatre is often cited as an archetype of Brutalist architecture in England, since Lasdun's death the building has been re-evaluated as having closer links to the work of Le Corbusier, rather than contemporary monumental 1960s buildings such as those of Paul Rudolph. The carefully refined balance between horizontal and vertical elements in Lasdun's building has been contrasted favourably with the lumpiness of neighbouring buildings such as the Hayward Gallerymarker and Queen Elizabeth Hallmarker, and is now in the unusual situation of having appeared simultaneously in the top ten "most popular" and "most hated" London buildings in opinion surveys. A recent lighting scheme illuminating the exterior of the building, in particular the fly towers, has proved very popular, and is one of several positive artistic responses to the building.

In September 2007, a statue of Lord Olivier as Hamlet was unveiled outside the building, to mark the centenary of the National's first artistic director.

The National also has a Studio, the National's research and development wing, founded in 1984. The Studio has played a vital role in developing work for the National's stages and throughout British theatre. Writers, actors and practitioners of all kinds can explore, experiment and devise new work there, free from the pressure of public performance. The National Theatre Archive is housed in the same building, which is across the road from the Old Vicmarker in the Cut, Waterloo, and used to house their workshops.

Image:Royal National Theatre 7.jpg|An artistic lighting scheme illuminating the exterior of the buildingImage:Laurence Oliver statue South Bank.jpg| The statue of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet was unveiled in September 2007Image:Royal National Theatre 6.jpg|The terrace entrance between the Mezzanine restaurant level and the Olivier cloakroom level, reached from halfway up/down Waterloo BridgeImage:Royal National Theatre 1.jpg|The main entrance on the ground floorImage:Royal National Theatre 9.jpg|The ensemble shows a varying range of geometric relationships.

Artistic directors

Laurence Olivier became artistic director of the National Theatre at its formation in 1963. He was considered the foremost British film and stage actor of the period, and became the first director of the Chichester Festival Theatremarker – there forming the company that would unite with the Old Vic Company to form the National Theatre Company. In addition to directing, he continued to appear in many successful productions. He became a life peer in 1970, for his services to theatre, and retired in 1973.

Peter Hall took over, to manage the move to the South Bank. His career included running the Arts Theatremarker between 1956–1959 — where he directed the English language première of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. He went on to take over the Memorial Theatre at Stratford, and to create a permanent Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1960, also establishing a new base at the Aldwych Theatremarker for transfers to the West Endmarker. He was artistic director at the National between 1973 and 1988; and continues to direct major performances for both the National and the RSC. In 2008, he opened a new theatre, The Rosemarker, and remains its director emeritus.

One of the National's associate directors, Richard Eyre became artistic director in 1988; his experience included running the Royal Lyceum Theatremarker, Edinburghmarker and the Nottingham Playhousemarker. He was noted for his series of collaborations with David Hare on the state of contemporary Britain.

In 1997, Trevor Nunn became artistic director. He came to the National from the RSC, having undertaken a major expansion of the company into the Swanmarker, The Other Placemarker and the Barbican Theatresmarker. He brought a more populist style to the National, introducing musical theatre to the repertoire.

The current artistic director, Nicholas Hytner took over in April 2003. He previously worked as an associate director with the Royal Exchange Theatremarker and the National. A number of his successful productions have been made into films.

Notable productions


In 1962, the company of the Old Vicmarker theatre was dissolved, and reconstituted as the "National Theatre Company" opening on 22 October 1963 with Hamlet. The company remained based in the Old Vic until the new buildings opened in February 1976.





Current and forthcoming productions

Productions for the January to June 2009 season include:

National Theatre Studio

The National Theatre studio is a development space on The Cutmarker, founded in 1985 under the directorship of Peter Gill. The studio houses work in progress such as play readings and workshops, and provides a venue for professional training.

The studio is housed in a Grade II listed building designed by architects Lyons, Israel and Ellis. Completed in 1958, the building was refurbished by architects Haworth Tompkins and reopened in Autumn 2007. Purni Morrell has been the Head of Studio since 2006.

National Theatre Connections

Connections (also referred to as New Connections and formerly Shell Connections) is an annual youth theatre scheme founded in 1995. Each year the National Theatre commissions ten plays from established playwrights which are performed by youth theatre groups across the UK. Groups are invited to perform at Connections Festivals held at a professional theatre in their area. Each play is then performed by a different group at the National Theatre itself later in the year.

The scheme was initially sponsored by Shell, but since 2007 has been supported by the Bank of America.

Six Connections plays have been professionally produced. Burn by Deborah Gearing, Chatroom by Enda Walsh and Citizenship by Mark Ravenhill were performed in 2006; the latter two were revived in 2007 when they also toured.

In 2008 Baby Girl by Roy Williams, DNA by Dennis Kelly and The Miracle by Lin Coghlan received professional productions in the Cottesloe.


The 2009 New Connections playwrights are Anthony Horowitz, Anthony Neilson, Ben Power, Christopher William Hill, Conor Mitchell, Davey Anderson, David Mamet, Georgia Fitch, Lisa McGee, Michael Lesslie, Nick Drake and William Boyd.



  • Hall, Peter, (edited Goodwin, John) (1983): Peter Hall's Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle (1972-79). Hamish Hamilton, London. ISBN 0-241-11047-5.

  • Goodwin, Tim (1988), Britain's Royal National Theatre: The First 25 Years. Nick Hern Books, London. ISBN 1-85459-070-7.

  • Callow, Simon (1997): The National: The Theatre and its Work, 1963-1997. Nick Hern Books, London. ISBN 1-85459-318-8.

See also

External links

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