Seven wonders of London: the National Theatre

The final instalment in our series celebrating the capital‘s most sensational sights champions a building that has courted controversy over both its architectural design, and the kind of productions that should be staged there. We argue that it‘s time the National Theatre was acknowledged as one of London‘s true man-made wonders

  • Seven wonders of London: the National Theatre

    The National Theatre

  • The decision to name the National Theatre as one of the Seven Wonders of London would have been considered provocative until very recently. In 2001, a Radio Times poll featured Denys Lasdun’s building uniquely in the top five of both the most hated British buildings and the most loved. Before that, in 1988, Prince Charles declared: ‘The National Theatre seems like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.’ An admirer of classicism, he clearly didn’t notice the extent to which Lasdun was a classicist too, greatly influenced by eighteenth-century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Charles’ comments drove those who dislike his taste in twee architecture to stand up for Lasdun, but you didn’t have to be anti-modernism to feel that, on a bad day, the National’s damp-streaked concrete could be depressing.

    But Lasdun – as architects should be – was ahead of the game, creating an austere building that doesn’t curry favour but equally won’t go out of fashion. As the years have passed, his careful composition of horizontal and vertical elements has won ever more admirers, and today the National is an iconic landmark which stands up to competition from Somerset House opposite and St Paul’s downstream. Steve Tompkins, who won an Evening Standard award for his redevelopment of the Young Vic, is a fan. ‘The more I try and work out how theatre buildings work, the more impressive the National becomes. It is one of the most beautiful uses of concrete in the world. Lasdun saw the building in terms of a piece of landscape, or a stratum of rock. He uses the stair towers and flytowers compositionally, conterpointing the terraces against them. There’s something so urbane about standing on those terraces on a sunny afternoon gazing across London. It makes you feel like a citizen of the city.’

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    Imprints of wooden planks in the concrete walls decorate a lyttelton stairwell

    It goes without saying that France had a National Theatre nearly 300 years before Britain. And it’s equally unsurprising that the British campaign was long and arduous. The first mutterings were heard in 1848. In 1907, a detailed scheme was presented by Harley Granville Barker and William Archer supported by George Bernard Shaw. None of these venerable coves lived to see their dream realised and it took the establishment of the Arts Council after World War II to inch the project forward. Various sites on the South Bank were mooted and the foundation stone, initially laid by the Queen Mother, was shunted around like a hockey puck. In 1961, the government helpfully declared that the country couldn’t afford a National Theatre and it was left to London County Council to offer to pay half the cost of construction in addition to providing the site rent-free. The government came on board again and, in 1962, Laurence Olivier was named as the first artistic director. In 1963 the National Theatre company moved in to the Old Vic, down the road from the South Bank, to await the completion of its new home.

    While Olivier and his company of extraordinary actors – including Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Denis Quilley and Derek Jacobi – strutted their stuff on The Cut, an architect was sought. Legend has it that Lasdun – well known for the Royal College of Physicians – impressed the interviewing panel partly because, unlike everyone else, he turned up on his own; because he said frankly that he knew nothing about designing theatres and would need to consult; and because he spoke of spiritual values. ‘Oh yes,’ Olivier wrote later, ‘we all fell for that one.’

    48 NT7.jpgLasdun did indeed consult – for two long years. The panel of experts – including Peter Brook, George Devine, Peter Hall, Kenneth Tynan and, of course, Olivier – couldn’t agree. Hall and Devine pushed for an open stage, inspired by the Greeks, that would suit epic plays. In contrast, Olivier wanted a proscenium arch, appropriate for a more naturalistic style. In the end, both were built, as well as the small experimental studio theatre that became the Cottesloe, the most popular of the three. That crucial decision meant that any artistic director is saddled with the huge task of trying to fill 2,300 seats a night, six nights a week.

    The optimism of the ’60s gave way to the strike-bound ’70s. Endless hold-ups and escalating costs meant that the building grew infinitesimally slowly. The delays made it less likely that Olivier, in deteriorating health, would be able to lead his troops into the new building. Sometimes he declared himself desperate to give up, at others he exploded at the mention of anyone taking over. Worryingly, he appeared to think that the successorship was down to him. Max Rayne, the then chairman of the board, felt that Peter Hall, who had set up the RSC as we know it today, was the obvious choice, ignoring Olivier’s lieutenants Michael Blakemore and Jonathan Miller. Olivier only discovered this because he and Hall shared the same agent, creating a terrible atmosphere which soured the early years in the new building. Olivier was, of course, an actor as well as a father figure to the company, very different from Hall, a Cambridge-educated, highly political director. Once Hall had taken over at the Old Vic in 1974, he began to prepare for the big move. And when McAlpine, the builders, kept postponing the date, he increased the pressure by moving in gradually, starting with ‘Hamlet’ in the Lyttelton in 1976.

    48 NT9.jpgThe previously tight company discovered that it had turned into a huge institution with dozens of extra staff. Dressing rooms were concrete cells. The members who had survived from Olivier’s time became nostalgic for their leaky old rehearsal room. Incredibly, no funds had been set aside for the extra cost of running the building – to be fair it would probably never have been built if there had – and Hall soon realised that, unless he was given more money, his funds for productions could easily be spent on cleaning the windows. These discoveries led to a change of heart among the theatrical community. Those same radicals who had campaigned for a National Theatre turned against it, fearing there were going to be no funds for anyone else.

    All this politicking affected people’s feelings for the building. Lasdun’s idea of decoration was to leave imprints of the wooden planks that held the concrete in place when it was being poured. When Richard Eyre told Albert Finney that Peter Brook had said a theatre should be like a violin – its tone coming from its period and age – Finney’s response was, ‘Who’d build a violin out of fucking concrete?’ Architects, however, were to be seen stroking the concrete, admiring the way it takes the light. And audiences – used to claustrophobic Shaftesbury Avenue foyers – took quickly to the theatres’ public spaces, with their pools of dramatic lighting isolating different areas.

    48 NT6.jpgIt’s not easy to build a theatre that is both intimate and able to seat enough people to make it viable. Lasdun spent most of his time working on the Olivier Theatre, looking at the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus and finally coming up with the idea of putting the stage in the corner, encircled by the audience. The acoustics have always posed a problem because, according to Eyre, ‘The volume of space is so huge in proportion to the number of people in the audience.’ But gradually directors like Eyre and Nicholas Hytner discovered that it works best either with a huge set that uses the famous revolving drum, or with almost no set at all. Hearteningly, more and more directors and designers have learnt these skills: witness Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’ powerful recent production of ‘War Horse’ which proved that, even on such a huge stage, a non-speaking horse made of aluminium and gauze can hold an audience’s attention.

    While months were spent discussing the Olivier, the Lyttelton received short shrift. Lasdun misguidedly thought that building a proscenium arch theatre was a pushover. No one wanted cherubs – especially postmodern ones – but he would have been well advised to study the structures, at least, of Edwardian architect Frank Matcham, who was a genius at creating an intimate relationship between actors and audience. Instead, the Lyttelton is a cold space in which those in the circle and those in the stalls have no sense of being in the same room. The one director who makes this space work is Katie Mitchell, whose cinematic style, as seen in ‘Iphigenia at Aulis’ (strangely she chooses to direct Greek tragedies in the Lyttelton and not the Olivier) reveals the theatre at its best.

    48 NT3.jpgLasdun’s classical purity didn’t allow for any hoardings, and complaints were made that there was no way of knowing that the building contained three theatres. Ralph Richardson suggested that it would add to the jollity if a rocket was launched nightly, but the 1983 Harrods bomb put paid to that. The digital board that you can see from Waterloo Bridge was installed during Hall’s time. Later, in 1996, work started on several major changes, some of them against Lasdun’s will. The architects Stanton Williams were brought on board, their task becoming harder when the building was rightly listed Grade II*. That listing ensured that it was impossible to demolish the walkway that links the Olivier in a roundabout fashion to Waterloo Bridge, in spite of the fact that few people use it. But the biggest change was to remove the road that separated the theatre from the river, and to put the bookshop and a new box office where the porte-cochère had been. This created a new public space, known as Theatre Square, used for outdoor performances. And – glory be! – the concrete was cleaned and no longer looks streaked in the rain.

    Recently, coloured lights have lit up the Lyttelton flytower and, last year, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey were even allowed to grow grass up its front.

    Its painful history almost forgotten, the South Bank has grown more popular with the addition of Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the London Eye and the restoration of the Festival Hall. It seems strange now to read Peter Lewis’ 1990 history of the National Theatre in which he asks whether it was ‘built in the wrong place, isolated on an untheatrical, unconvivial site on the wrong side of the river instead of in the heart of London’s theatreland’. How wrong he was. The artistic quarter that Lasdun dreamt of 40 years ago has well and truly arrived.

    National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 (020 7452 3000/

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