West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Backstage Tour of the National Theatre
Thursday 13th July 2017
We enjoyed a fascinating visit to the National
Theatre. Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable young guides led us
first to the Olivier Theatre auditorium where we were given an overview
of the NT, its history and its raison d’etre. For its first 13
years the company worked at the Old Vic Theatre while waiting for its
new home to be built and in 1976 the National Theatre building was
opened by the Queen.
Before this visit, we had not appreciated the rationale behind the
buildings and had been scathing about their appearance. The
of Sir Lawrence Olivier, the venue was designed to be a theatre for
“The National Theatre must be its own advertisement. It must
impose itself through public notice - not by posters or press
advertisements but by the very fact of its ample, dignified and liberal
existence. It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life
of London. It must not ever have the air of appealing to a
specially literate and cultured class. It must be visibly and
unmistakably a popular institution making a large appeal to the whole
community. It must be absolutely the property of the nation.”
The interior is ‘quiet’ - lighting, signage, auditorium seats - all
make for a calm and serene atmosphere. No chandeliers, ornate
fittings or swags here. The three theatres are subdued and
welcoming, and appeal to those who might not have experienced live
theatre before. £15 tickets are available for some performances.
Designed by architect Denys Lasdun in the Brutalist style, the building
is of layered concrete both inside and out - solid and simple.
Hated by some, revered by most, it was granted Grade 2 Heritage listing
in 1994, only 18 years after it was built.
Having been fully appraised of the background of the theatre, our tour
began in earnest. The Olivier Theatre was undergoing a production
changeover and we were fortunate to see a technical and lighting crew
working smoothly to change the set-up. We glimpsed the impressive
Drum Revolve which is unique to the National. Most theatres will
have a middle flat section of the stage which revolves but the revolve
here is a drum, five storeys high, contains several elevators and
facilitates dramatic scene changes - for example it allows towers to
rise, or boats to sink from view.
The Olivier has 1160 seats in a fan shape which allows the full set to
be seen from anywhere in the auditorium. The Lyttleton Theatre
has 890 seats and the Dorfman [formerly the Cottesloe] has 450.
Collectively, the NT has 25 new shows a year. All stage sets,
costumes, props, wigs and so on are made in the vast workshops behind
the theatres. We toured the carpentry area and the props
department where much use is made of polystyrene. En route, we
came across a huge imposing statue of Simon Russell Beale perched on
top of a filing cabinet and a ‘meat pie’ from ‘Sweeney Todd’, suitably
bloody and with a cut-throat razor protruding through the crust!
The hair for the wigs is sourced from eastern Europe. Individual
strands are woven into a mesh by the wig-makers but for NT Live
productions, the wigs must be made again using a finer mesh for
close-up camera work.
We enjoy all the visits we make with our group and this one was no
exception. It was fabulous! Thanks so much to Gwen for
suggesting it and to Pat and Jonathan for ‘minding’ us on the
day. Finally … All props, wigs, costumes and so on are available
hire so if you want to upstage your neighbours, have a Sweeney Todd
party and hire a pie!
Text by Martin and Maggie Powell
Photos by Jonathan Cross
Related Link (opens in new window):
The National Theatre