Places of culture (5)

Plays, plays, plays

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 24.08.2018

History

It started off in 1963 with a permanent company of actors and the legendary Laurence Olivier at the helm. Since there was no purpose-built house at the time, they were based at the Old Vic, a Victorian music hall. Once the National Theatre moved to the South Bank in 1976, everything changed. There was no more permanent ensemble, and suddenly there were three auditoria to fill. Actors would come and go, which allowed for greater diversity in style and for job opportunities elsewhere: often Hollywood or Broadway called. Over the years the NT would dive deep into the repertoire but also invite new playwrights in: from Shakespeare to Mark Ravenhill. Once cheaper tickets were made available, middle-class, middle-aged audiences were joined by younger crowds.

Funnily enough, the Laurence Olivier statue in front of the NT has long been dwarfed by the building in spite of the overly dramatic pose it strikes, as if it were telling us that acting has moved on. What sounded natural decades ago sounds embarrassingly stagey today. No more affectation, no more exaggerated body language. Acting has become more intimate, more honest perhaps. Certainly much less flamboyant.

Architecture

Three theatres, various workshop spaces, a bookshop, some bars and restaurants. Denys Lasdun was appointed to the project in 1963. After a series of setbacks the NT was finally completed in 1976, with Peter Hall as the director that led the institution into its new building. The latter was soon to become a London landmark. Marking a firm goodbye to the glittering chandeliers and the creaky seats in the West End, it definitely changed the way theatre is perceived in Britain.

A layered concrete landscape with two fly towers rising from various horizontal terraces. Inside soft furnishings and purple-carpeted foyers contrast with rough-cast concrete walls. While some spaces tower to their full height, walkways and circular stairwells allow you to find your way around. A stickler for perfection, Lasdun even chose the cutlery and crockery for the restaurants.

Prince Charles, who loves lambasting modern architecture and regularly sends letters of protest to government departments, famously hates the Brutalist building. He once described the NT as a monstrous carbuncle, “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.” But this time the spidery handwriting of the heir to the throne had no impact whatsoever. Hate it or love it, for many a theatregoer the iconic building on the South Bank is the one place to be as it has come to represent the very best of British theatre. A paradise for culture vultures.

The views

The views of the Thames are absolutely breathtaking. So, not surprisingly, the National is a milestone on the river walk that will take you from Vauxhall Bridge or Westminster to Tate Modern and, further afield, to Tower Bridge. In summer the area pullulates with tourists and Londoners enjoying a drink on the river or a bite at Borough Market.

Mission possible

The National has long become a game-changer. Art, entertainment, or both? It stands for artistic regeneration, for a balance of the serious and the irreverent. It is culture as a constant questioning of both choices and values, of politicians and priorities. It is a building buzzing with life and creativity, routinely taking the pulse of the nation in more ways than one.

On stage characters look inwards as well as outwards. Sometimes luck or coincidence intervenes. Staging Henry V the very moment Blair cosied up to George W Bush is a case in point since overnight Shakespeare became a contemporary commentator who asked all the relevant questions about commitment and national identity. Similarly, Stuff happens, the David Hare play about Rumsfeld & co., turned into a running comment on what was going on in the Oval Office.

The directors

Each of them has left his mark. The one we know most about, no doubt, is Nicholas Hytner as he has published Balancing acts, a memoir about his tenure, which went from 2003 to 2015. He was, in fact, the fifth director and the fourth who read English at Cambridge University, which may tell us something about the excellence of Cambridge, but also about power networks in Britain.

Behind the scenes

In the book Hytner describes trying to live up to the expectations of sponsors, government ministers and audiences, all at the same time. His passion for the job and his steely determination shine through from beginning to end. Under his rule NT Live was introduced, bringing theatre to a cinema near you. Balancing acts also tells you about the various shows he directed while he was at the helm. It discusses the occasional flop as well as the glorious 50th celebration. In 2013 the NT’s birthday was marked with a two-hour celebration broadcast live by the BBC. Scenes from memorable productions were performed by the likes of Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench…. From Shakespeare to modern classics via Restoration comedy and the American musical.

So many invitations to collectively suspend your disbelief, one of the things audiences adore doing. But then, ironically, a few pages later it is back to earth as the meatballs served in one of the restaurants and women’s toilets become issues to be solved urgently.

The auditoria

There are three very different spaces. The Olivier Theatre, with its round revolving stage, is a huge semi-circular space based on the ancient theatre at Epidaurus. It seats 1 150 people and has a unique epic sweep to it. This is the ideal place to satisfy our collective hunger for large-scale storytelling. Not surprisingly, in 2011 Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller rotating in the roles of the Creature and its maker, became an instant triumph.

Then there is the least spectacular of the three, the 900-seat Lyttleton with its proscenium stage, and, finally, there is the 300-seat Dorfman, a versatile small studio space tucked away to the side of the building, where the offices are. This is where a particularly colourful character came alive in Here lies love in 2014 in a superb musical based on David Byrne’s album about Imelda Marcos.

The plays

Of course, some shows are better than others, but very rarely have I seen a play here that did not have a spark or a thrill. Often the staging is genuinely spectacular, relying on the most sophisticated technical devices; at other times the plays grip you with their uncompromising honesty, with the intensity of the acting and the emotions. Ralph Fiennes, Helen Mirren, Simon Russell Beale…, all the stars have been here and will be back.

Making art and putting bums on seats, i.e. selling tickets, come together. Directors and actors have to do both. It is the challenge they are not allowed to ignore.

The visitors

In summer it all starts outside on Theatre Square, where bands, mimes, acrobats or witches on stilts draw crowds of their own. Then, as you enter the NT, a concert might be in full swing in the downstairs foyer. Yes, most people are here to take in a show later, yet there are also those that drop in for a quick sandwich, for a latte or a lager. The downstairs bar and café are busy all day. This is also a hub where friends or families meet. It gives it that particular buzz, which is missing from most of our theatres since they only come alive at night.

While senior citizens and school parties flock to the NT for a mid-week or a Saturday matinée, a mix of age groups attend the evening shows.

Celebrity spotting

If you are into people watching, the NT is an excellent base to start from. Success is guaranteed. You might spot Paula Rego in the cloakroom or Ian McKellen hopping up the stairs in a flamboyant summer suit. On another day you might end up sitting in front of Tom Stoppard or Indira Varma. They’re all here, the thespians, but also the great and the good, with the odd minister thrown in, something that so rarely happens in lovely Luxembourg, where most politicians are at best intermittent patrons of the performing arts.

Tickets

Booking for the following season becomes a ritual, a nail-biting marathon that is bound to have you panic at times. The secret is to become a friend or supporter since membership allows you to buy tickets in advance. Still, on the day the booking period for the new season opens at 8:30, you might very well be number 2 504 in the queue. Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in Antony & Cleopatra? It may take an hour and a half to get tickets, yet you will eventually strike lucky. Alternatively, you can go to the National on the day you want to see a show and join the early-morning queue in front of the doors that will open at 9:30 for day tickets. Interesting conversations guaranteed while waiting.

Education, education, education

For each production there are pre-show talks and events, either with the director or with experts in a particular field.

And then, the NT has long had an educational programme you can only envy them for. Every year Connections brings playwrights and schools together. Ten short plays are commissioned from established writers. Then schools and youth groups throughout the UK choose one of them and perform it at festivals in over forty partner theatres, with a handful of groups travelling to London to perform at a week-long festival at the National itself. This is arts education at its very best.

The Luxembourg link

Years ago The Waves came to our shores. A fantastic staging of the Virginia Woolf novel directed by Katie Mitchell. The standing ovation the actors were given night after night took them by surprise since London audiences are much more reticent: two rounds of applause and off you go, back to the dressing rooms.

A few seasons later there was Rory Kinnear as Hamlet, another outstanding show. You can only wish that more NT productions came our way since they invariably signify innovation and the most polished of performances.

You could also argue that today theatre matters more than ever as the need to probe and examine is particularly crucial when reality becomes messier and messier. Since plays explore the gap between honesty and pretence, between rhetoric and manipulation, they perform a public service in more ways than one. If done well, they help audiences understand others as well as themselves and what is going on in the world at large. So, please, let the words jump off the page and fly!

Janine Goedert
© 2018 d’Lëtzebuerger Land