The National Theatre, South Bank, London
Introduction - The Olivier Theatre - The Lyttleton Theatre - The Cottesloe / Dorfman - The Shed Theatre - Times Article on the proposed National Theatre in 1967 - Observer article on the proposed National Theatre 1967 - Olivier Theatre Productions 1976 - 2006 - Lyttleton Theatre Productions 1976 - 2006 - Cottesloe Theatre Productions 1976 - 2006
Above - The National Theatre in July 2008 - Photo M.L.
The National Theatre complex was designed by the architect Denys Lasdun and opened in 1976. The complex was originally comprised of three Theatres, the Thrust staged Olivier Theatre, the Proscenium arched Lyttleton Theatre, and the highly adaptable Cottesloe Theatre. There were also numerous foyer spaces, bars, and a restaurant Front of House, and vast areas backstage to house the artistes and technicians who continuously created the Theatre's numerous productions.
The whole National Theatre complex was first conceived in the 1960s while the National Theatre Company itself was thriving in its then home, the Old Vic Theatre, just a short walk away from the current building. The National Theatre company's first production at the Old Vic was 'Hamlet' which stared Peter O'Toole and opened on the 22nd of October 1963.
Right - The River Frontage of the National Theatre in July 2008. - Photo ML
The National Theatre was designed to compliment the IBM building next to it, which was also by Denys Lasdun, and completed a year earlier than the National Theatre in 1975. The site on the South Bank of the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge, was cleared and building work began on the new National Theatre in 1969.
The first Theatre in the complex to open was the Lyttleton on the 16th of March 1976 with Peter Hall's production of 'Hamlet' with Albert Finney in the leading role. 'Hamlet' was also the first production when the National Theatre Company first opened at the Old Vic in 1963.
Right - A Programme for Tom Stoppard's excellent play 'Jumpers' with Michael Hordern in the lead role, at the National Theatre's Lyttleton Theatre on Monday the 21st of April 1977, just a year after the Theatre opened.
Next to open was the Olivier Theatre on the 4th of October 1976 with a the Peter Hall Production of Marlowe's 'Tamburlaine The Great.' The official opening of the National Theatre Complex by the Queen took place a few weeks later, on the 25th of October 1976
Last to open was the Cottesloe Theatre, which was created out of an originally unplanned space in the building, and opened on the 4th of November 1977 with a visiting production of Ken Campbell's 'Illuminatus,' which was a bottom numbing eight hours long.
Left - A Ticket stub for Tom Stoppard's excellent play 'Jumpers' with Michael Hordern in the lead role, at the National Theatre's Lyttleton Theatre on Monday the 21st of April 1977, just a year after the Theatre opened.
The original Artistic Director of the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic was the much loved actor Laurence Olivier but in November 1973 he resigned his position due to ill health. Sir Peter Hall then took up the mantel and oversaw the move to their new home on the South Bank in 1976.
Right - The rear of the National Theatre where all the sets are created for the Theatre's many productions.
Peter Hall was eventually succeeded by Richard Eyre whose production of the musical 'Guys and Dolls' which first opened at the Olivier Theatre on the 9th of March 1982, was the first in a long line of highly successful Musicals produced by the company. Richard Eyre was succeeded by Trevor Nunn who in turn was succeeded by Nicholas Hytner, the current Artistic Director of the National Theatre.
The National Theatre is a Grade II Listed Building which, in 2013, is currently undergoing a major £70 million redevelopment plan called NT Future, a short video on the scheme can be viewed below, and full details about the project can be found here.
There now follows details for each of the Theatres in the National Theatre Complex.
You may like to visit the National Theatre's own Website here.
The Olivier Theatre was named after Sir Laurence Olivier, who was the original Artistic Director of the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic. It is the biggest of the three Theatres in the National Theatre Complex and was modeled on the ancient Greek Theatre in Epidaurus. The Theatre was designed with an open thrust stage which projects into a fan shaped auditorium and has a capacity of over 1,100.
Right - The vast Fly Tower of the Olivier Theatre can be seen here thrusting out of the National Theatre Complex in July 2008. Photo ML
The Theatre opened on the 4th of October 1976 with the Peter Hall Production of Marlowe's 'Tamburlaine The Great.' The official opening by the Queen of the whole National Theatre Complex took place a few weeks later, on the 25th of October 1976.
The Olivier Theatre, which is some three floors up, has an innovative drum revolve, which consists of three semi circular segments, two of which can be lowered to the ground floor of the building and are interchangeable so that sets can magically revolve out of sight and be replaced with new ones revolving back up to stage level. Something which has been used to great effect in several productions.
Above - A 1970s Seating Plan for the Olivier Theatre
The Olivier Theatre has had a great many successes over the years and it's production of Guys and Dolls in 1982 was one of the most successful in its history. The best selling musical went on tour to the Bristol Hippodrome and later all around the country, eventually ending up in the West End at the Prince of Wales Theatre for several years. The production was also revived at the National Theatre in November 1990 for two special performances in memory of the late Ian Charleson, who had played Sky Masterson in the 1982 production, and then revived again as a complete recreation of the original in 1996.
Right - A Programme for Richard Eyre's original National Theatre production of 'Guys and Dolls' which opened at the Olivier Theatre in 1982.
I have a great fondness for the Olivier Theatre myself as I worked there for seven years in the lighting department during the 1980s.
Left - A Programme for 'The Threepenny Opera' at the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre which was first produced there in 1986.
The Olivier Theatre was designed with an innovative power flying system and powered lighting cradles and because the Theatre is situated three floors above ground level there is also a huge scenery lift behind the stage which is used for transporting sets and equipment back and forth to ground level.
Right - A Programme for the National Theatre's fantastic production of Bertolt Brecht's 'Schweyk' which was first produced at the Olivier Theatre on the 23rd of September 1982. And A Programme for the National Theatre's production of 'Don Quixote' which was first produced at the Olivier Theatre with Pail Scofield as Don Quixote del la Mancha on the 18th of June 1982.
A serious accident occurred with the scenery lift at the Olivier Theatre in the 1980s when the hydraulics failed and the lift collapsed during a change of sets, killing one crew member and halting production at the Theatre for the evening.
A list of all the productions in the Olivier Theatre from 1976 to 2006 can be seen here.
Above - The large square Fly Tower of the Lyttleton Theatre can be seen here rising above the original box office and long bar area of the National Theatre in July 2008. Photo ML
The Lyttleton Theatre was the first Theatre in the complex to open It was named after Oliver Lyttleton who was the first chairman of the National Theatre Board. It is a conventional Theatre designed with an adjustable proscenium and regularly shaped auditorium which can seat nearly 900 people.
The stage was fitted with two enormous sliding platforms which could transport an entire set from the wings or the rear of the stage onto the stage itself, so creating seamless scene changes.
Right - A Programme for Tom Stoppard's excellent play 'Jumpers' with Michael Hordern in the lead role, at the National Theatre's Lyttleton Theatre on Monday the 21st of April 1977, just a year after the Theatre opened.
The Theatre opened on the 16th of March 1976 with Peter Hall's production of 'Hamlet', with Albert Finney in the leading role. Hamlet was also the first production when the National Theatre Company first opened at the Old Vic in 1963.
A list of all the productions in the Lyttleton Theatre from 1976 to 2006 can be seen here.
The Cottesloe Theatre was named after Lord Cottesloe, who was the chairman of the South Bank Board when the Theatre opened. The Theatre was created out of an originally unplanned space in the building and opened on the 4th of November 1977 with a visiting production of Ken Campbell's 'Illuminatus,' which was a bottom numbing eight hours long.
The Cottesloe Theatre was a small oblong space which was very versatile. The audience could be seated at either end or indeed, all around a stage which could be centre or at either end too.
However, the Cottesloe Theatre was closed on the 23rd of February 2013 for reconstruction and a proposed reopening as the Dorfman Theatre in February 2014.
Right - A photograph of the National Theatre's temporary 'Shed Theatre' in May 2013 - Photo M.L.
Meanwhile a new Temporary Theatre called the Shed Theatre, a large red building on the river frontage of the National, was constructed to house the Cottesloe's productions. The Shed's opening was in April 2013 and was built to run until the new Dorfman Theatre opened in February 2014.
A list of all the productions in the Cottesloe Theatre from 1976 to 2006 can be seen here.
Above - A model of the National Theatre viewed as from Somerset House, with Waterloo Bridge on the right.
Details of the proposed £7,400,000 National Theatre, described by Sir Laurence Olivier as "something of a marvel", were announced yesterday, and the Greater London Council will now discuss the project with the Government. J. M. Richards, our Architectural Correspondent, here describes the design with its two auditoria, tiers of terraces, and separate studio theatre.
The external form of Mr. Denys Lasdun's National Theatre has - in accordance with the best architectural precepts - been generated from within by the design of its two auditoria.
These auditoria, as well as the building and its approaches, were exhibited yesterday in the shape of fully detailed models when the architect's adaptation of his earlier design to the new site downstream of Waterloo Bridge was made public by Lord Cottesloe, chairman of the South Bank Theatre Board.
Right - A Plan of the complete site.
The incorporation in the building of two auditoria, one in amphitheatre form and the other with a proscenium stage, follows the earlier design and the early decision by the board that a single auditorium, however ingeniously made adaptable to various production techniques, would be an undesirable compromise, besides - since it would have to provide at least 2,000 seats - falling short of the ideal in audibility and visibility.
The main fan-shaped auditorium with an open stage seats 1,165 people in two stepped tiers, designed to focus attention on the acting area and to avoid the possibility of members of the audience confronting each other across the stage.
The smaller auditorium, seating 895, is rectangular, with a conventional proscenium stage, opening up, however, to give a maximum proscenium width of 52ft. It is on a lower level and has its own foyers and approaches, since the two theatres are to operate simultaneously.
At the lower levels they and their service areas are incorporated in the one building, but higher up they emerge as identifiable structures, and their separate low-pitched roofs and rectangular fly-towers dominate the architectural composition.
As in Mr. Lasdun's earlier designs these powerful vertical elements are contrasted with a strongly horizontal stratification lower down, created by the tiers of open-air terraces which extend, and correspond to, the tiers of foyers and promenading spaces surrounding the auditoria.
The lowest of these terraces is a continuation of the terraces outside the Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and is connected to them beneath the land arch of Waterloo Bridge. This terrace will therefore he permanently open to the public as a riverside promenade.
Left - The interior of the main auditorium with its open stage.
The upper terraces can be opened in the same way, or restricted to the use of the theatre audiences as outdoor foyers, equipped with infrared heaters.
The building will be entered from several levels - that of Waterloo Bridge, that of the concert-hall terrace and that of the riverside walk. By car it Will be approached via the east side from Upper Ground, where there is a ramp to the basement car park.
On the east side also it the entrance to the separate studio theatre, to seat 200, designed for Production experiments and at the back of the site is a long low block of top-lit workshops.
The whole promises a vigorous piece of architecture, sculpturally inventive as are all Mr. Lasdun's buildings, and well suited to its position on the curve of the river. Construction will be reinforced concrete, but full details of the materials to be used are not yet available.
The treatment of the tiers and terraces (which are to be extensively planted) and of the roof spaces will in this instance have unusual importance, demanding quality and interest in their finishes, because, in spite of its bulk, the building will frequently be seen from above - for example, from Waterloo Bridge.
Immediately downstream is the Semi-derelict area of Commercial Wharf and Nelson's Wharf; an area stretching as far as Blackfriars Bridge, whose future the Greater London Council is at present studying, and which may be developed for housing.
If this is done it will provide an answer to those who deplore the concentration of cultural buildings on the South Bank, removed from the living fabric of London.
Right - Programme for the National Theatre's production of 'Jacobowsky & the Colonel,' a programme which was given away free to the audience of the Olivier Theatre on the occasion of the National Theatre's 10th Birthday on the 25th of October 1986. - From my own collection. M.L.
Such further development, however, lies in the future; so indeed does the National Theatre itself until the money to build it is forthcoming.
Last year the Government promised to provide half the £7,500,000 it was estimated to cost and the G.L.C. the other half. Revised estimates of the cost of the redesigned theatre and its equipment, worked out to the last detail, show that Mr. Lasdun has managed to reduce the cost to £7,400.000.
This is something of an achievement in view of the 5 per cent increase in building costs, the increased seating capacity, more car parking, and the greater complexity of the stage equipment and lighting.
The architects report and estimate have been with the G.L.C. since November 8, and a clarification of the council's intentions is now awaited, especially in view of the impression already given that the Tory majority, which took office after the undertaking was entered into, may intend to drive a harder bargain by including its own valuation of the site in its contribution.
Right - A plan of the Lower Theatre (proscenium stage).
The design as now made public has been approved by the South Bank Theatre Board and is fully ready to go on to the construction stage. It is not a luxury building, simply the building required to fulfill all the purposes of a national theatre. Any attempt to economize in cost at this stage would, in the long run, be nothing but loss.
Lord Cottesloe, emphasized however, that, even if the Government and the G.LC. raised no difficulties, no substantial sum would be required for about 18 months while preliminary work went forward. If all goes as it is hoped, the new national theatre could be ready for use by January, 1973.
Text and images above (except the programme image) from an article printed in the Times, November the 23rd 1967.
From The Observer, November 26th 1967
IAN NAIRN discusses the new designs for the National Theatre.
Above - View from Waterloo Bridge: the open-stage
theatre, left, and the proscenium theatre, right.
'THE question of financial implications cannot be entertained today': thus Lord Cottesloe, at last week's press conference on the proposed National Theatre on the South Bank site, designed by Denys Lasdun.
So it was Hamlet without the Prince, for the long-awaited theatre is scheduled to cost £7,400,000, half to be found by the Government and half by the GLC (an endowment of £3,500 a seat by 2,000 organisations would pay for it; it is worth thinking about). This is a drop of £100,000 on the original estimates of March 1966; taking into account a 5 per cent increase in the cost of building and increased theatre capacities and services, it is equivalent to a cost reduction of £750,000.
Last year's scheme was for a combined theatre and opera house, on a site between the London County Hall and the Festival Hall. The two buildings were designed to step down in a series of descending terraces from sides to centre, framing the Shell Building and, with luck, rescuing the South Bank from the consequences of that massive hulk.
The opera house was then axed from the programme; the GLC, perhaps with an eye to a convenient extension of County Hall - what a notable addition to the South Bank that would be! - offered an alternative site immediately downstream from Waterloo Bridge. The change in site made Lasdun's problems easier, for the basic thinking on the auditoria had been done anyway, and road access is very much less thorny than it would have been from the level site alongside Belvedere Road. So now it is 'tied like an umbilical cord to Waterloo Bridge,' and hence tied to London, too.
The basis of the plan is the provision of two auditoria: a proscenium-stage theatre with a capacity of 900 and an open-stage one with a capacity of 1,200. The sizes are a reflection of geometry, not relative importance; the architect feels that 900 seats is about the maximum for a proscenium stage if everyone is going to see and hear perfectly. Using the same visual and aural criteria the plan of the open stage - with the auditorium shaped in a quadrant of a circle - will provide one-third more accommodation.
These two theatres make a reentrant corner towards Waterloo Bridge; proscenium with a main entrance at embankment level, open stage with a foyer 20 feet above, half way between river and bridge-parapet. Externally each subsequent level is expressed with a deep balcony; these terraces will have concrete balustrades which look much more massive in the model than they are likely to in reality, because the core of the theatre will be translucent, at least at night.
The new site was confirmed in March this year; models and 100 page report were produced in seven months. And that, says Lasdun is 'fast work in my trade.' Fast work indeed; fast work, also, to leapfrog half of one good design a quarter of a mile and come up with something which looks equally good and equally inevitable.
It is impossible to imagine the theatrical experience in detail, even with sketches and models, but the design has a sure-footedness which could be wrecked only by monstrous miscalculations over the internal finishes. And that, with Lasdun, is not likely to happen.
Put shortly I believe in this design, and not least because the architect says that 'the architecture isn't there.' It deserves to be started now, as an act of faith in our national potential, and even in the present gloomy financial climate there is one ray of hope - no major payments will be required in the next 18 months. And if we are not out of the wood by then, we will deserve a National Poorhouse, not a National Theatre.
Text and images above from The Observer November 26th 1967.
You may like to visit the Website of the National Theatre here.
Below is a list of productions that have taken place at the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre from 1976 to 2006, as listed in the Theatre's archive. The dates are for the month, day, and year of the press night of each production. All productions were performed on the main stage of the Olivier Theatre except 'Platform Performances' which are stated as being performed in the Stalls or Foyer etc.
09/16/1976 Tamburlaine the Great
02/2/1978 The Cherry Orchard
02/5/1979 A Fair Quarrel
01/17/1981 Man and Superman
02/26/1982 Guys and Dolls
02/10/1984 Saint Joan
01/25/1985 The Government Inspector
03/6/1986 The Threepenny Opera
02/26/1987 Six Characters in Search of an Author
02/25/1988 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
01/27/1989 Hedda Gabler
02/9/1990 Peer Gynt
01/4/1991 Dario Fo and Franca Rame
02/6/1992 Dialogue: Evelyn Glennie and Dominic Muldowney
02/12/1993 Trelawny of the "Wells"
01/7/1994 Theatre Quiz
01/20/1995 The Merry Wives of Windsor
01/10/1997 Jeanette Winterson
01/15/1998 John Fraser as J M Barrie: The Man Who Wrote Peter Pan
01/7/1999 NT 2000: Peter Pan
04/4/2000 The Villains' Opera
02/3/2001 The Cherry Orchard
03/8/2002 Masterclass with Fiona Shaw
02/15/2003 Love's Labour's Lost
01/5/2004 His Dark Materials: Nicholas Hytner
05/4/2005 Henry IV Part 1
04/12/2006 The Royal Hunt of the Sun
Below is a list of productions that have taken place at the National Theatre's Lyttleton Theatre from 1976 to 2006, as listed in the Theatre's archive. The dates are for the month, day, and year of the press night of each production. All productions were performed on the main stage of the Lyttleton Theatre except 'Platform Performances' which are stated as being performed in the Stalls or Foyer etc.
01/21/1977 Counting the Ways
02/2/1980 Thee and Me
05/7/1982 Uncle Vanya
01/21/1983 A Map of the World
01/9/1984 Where the Wild Things Are
02/21/1985 The Road to Mecca
02/6/1986 Brighton Beach Memoirs
01/23/1987 School for Wives
01/25/1988 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
02/7/1991 The Visit
01/13/1992 Judi Dench and Sam Mendes
01/5/1993 Theatre Quiz
01/10/1994 Camille Paglia: Sex, Art and American Culture
01/11/1995 The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre
01/8/1996 Diana Rigg: No Turn Unstoned
01/12/1998 Graham Trew sings Housman
01/23/1999 The Forest
02/1/2000 Ann Reinking - Platform
01/3/2001 The Island
01/17/2002 John Lahr
01/18/2003 The Tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi
01/5/2004 Matthew Bourne on Play Without Words
01/14/2005 Harriet Walter on Other People's Shoes
01/23/2006 The History Boys Revival World Tour
Below is a list of productions that have taken place at the National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre from 1976 to 2006, as listed in the Theatre's archive. The dates are for the month, day, and year of the press night of each production.
11/7/1977 Lavender Blue
02/11/1978 Love Letters on Blue Paper
02/14/1979 The Long Voyage Home
08/12/1980 Line 'Em
06/15/1981 One Woman Plays
10/9/1982 Victoria Station
02/9/1983 Kick for Touch
12/12/1984 The Nativity
11/6/1985 Five Play Bill
04/21/1986 An Act of Faith
09/10/1987 Ting Tang Mine
10/4/1988 Russell of the Times
05/24/1989 Tango Varsoviano
07/16/1990 Max Stafford-Clark
03/18/1991 Translations: From French Page to English Stage
02/4/1992 Maria St Just Remembers Tennessee Williams
10/9/1993 Pigspurt, or Six Pigs from Happiness
02/7/1994 William Archer and Bernard Shaw
11/13/1995 John Julius Norwich
09/20/1996 Contrasts in Comedy: Maria Aitken and Janet Suzman
02/19/1997 Jenni Murray
07/9/1998 Dialogue: Sebastian Barry
06/2/1999 NT 2000: Zigger Zagger
07/21/2000 Picasso's Women IV: Beside Picasso
02/9/2002 The Syringa Tree
05/23/2003 Elmina's Kitchen
04/6/2004 Julian Fellows
09/13/2005 Two Thousand Years
02/17/2006 Southwark Fair