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Royal National Theatre

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National Theatre

The National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge
Address South Bank
City Lambeth, London
Coordinates 51.5071°N 0.1141°W / 51.5071; -0.1141 Coordinates: 51.5071°N 0.1141°W / 51.5071; -0.1141
Designation Grade II*
Architect Denys Lasdun
Capacity Olivier Theatre 1,160 seats
Lyttelton Theatre 890 seats
Cottesloe Theatre 400 seats
Type National theatre
Opened 1976
Production Repertory

The Royal National Theatre (generally known as the National Theatre and commonly as The National) in London is one of the United Kingdom'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 Vic theatre in Waterloo. The current building was designed by architect Sir Denys Lasdun and contains three stages, which opened individually between 1976 and 1977. It is located next to the Thames in the South Bank 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 or repertory, 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% from 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 and 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-Française took a residency at the Gaiety Theatre, 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 Theatre was opened in Stratford upon Avon on 23 April 1879, with the New Shakespeare Company; and Herbert Beerbohm Tree founded an Academy of Dramatic Art at Her Majesty's Theatre 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 Bloomsbury, this was an aspiration interrupted by World War I. Finally, in 1948, the London County Council presented a site close to the Royal Festival Hall for the purpose, and a "National Theatre Act", offering financial support, was passed by Parliament 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 Wells and Old Vic. 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 Epidaurus; 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.
Denys Lasdun's building for the National Theatre - an "urban landscape" of interlocking terraces responding to the site at King's Reach on the River Thames to exploit views of St Paul's Cathedral and Somerset House.

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 Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall, 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 Vic in the Cut, Waterloo, and used to house their workshops.

Artistic directors

Laurence Olivier was the first Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre, in 1963. Shown in a photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1939

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 Theatre – 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 Theatre 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 Theatre for transfers to the West End. 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 Rose, and remains its director emeritus.

One of the National's Associate Directors, Richard Eyre became Artist Director in 1988; his experience included running the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and the Nottingham Playhouse. 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 Swan, The Other Place and the Barbican Theatres. 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 Theatre and the National. A number of his successful productions have been made into films.

Notable productions


In 1962, the company of the Old Vic 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.
  • Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier, with Peter O'Toole in the title-role and Michael Redgrave as Claudius (1963).
  • The Recruiting Officer, directed by William Gaskill with Laurence Olivier as Captain Brazen, Maggie Smith as Sylvia and Robert Stephens as Captain Plume (1963).
  • Othello, directed by John Dexter, with Laurence Olivier in the title-role, Frank Finlay as Iago and Maggie Smith as Desdemona (1964).
  • The Royal Hunt of the Sun by Peter Shaffer, directed by John Dexter (1964); the National's first world premiere
  • As You Like It directed by Clifford Williams, the all-male production with Ronald Pickup as Rosalind, Jeremy Brett as Orlando, Charles Kay as Celia, Derek Jacobi as Touchstone, Robert Stephens as Jaques (1967).
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, directed by Derek Goldby, with John Stride and Edward Petherbridge (1967).
  • The Dance of Death by August Strindberg, with Laurence Olivier as Edgar, Geraldine McEwan as Alice and Robert Stephens as Kurt (1967).
  • Oedipus by Seneca translated by Ted Hughes, directed by Peter Brook, with John Gielgud as Oedipus, Irene Worth as Jocasta (1968).
  • The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jonathan Miller, with Laurence Olivier as Shylock and Joan Plowright as Portia (1970)
  • Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Ingmar Bergman, with Maggie Smith as Hedda (1970)
  • Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Michael Blakemore, with Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone (1971)
  • Jumpers by Tom Stoppard, directed by Peter Wood, starring Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg (1972)
  • The Misanthrope by Molière, translated by Tony Harrison, directed by John Dexter with Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg (1973-74)


  • The Tempest with John Gielgud as Prospero, directed by Peter Hall (1974).
  • No Man's Land by Harold Pinter, directed by Peter Hall, with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud (1975)
  • Illuminatus!, an eight-hour five- play cycle from Ken Campbell's The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool (opening production at the Cottesloe, 1977)
  • Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Peter Hall (1977)
  • Lark Rise by Keith Dewhurst, directed by Bill Bryden (1978)
  • Tales from the Vienna Woods by Ödön von Horváth, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Maximilian Schell, with Stephen Rea and Kate Nelligan
  • Plenty by David Hare, directed by the author, with Stephen Moore and Kate Nelligan (1978)
  • Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, directed by Peter Hall, with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow (1979-80)
  • Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Howard Brenton directed by John Dexter with Michael Gambon (1980)
  • The Romans in Britain by Howard Brenton, directed by Michael Bogdanov, subject of a private prosecution by Mary Whitehouse (1980)
  • The Oresteia by Aeschylus, translated by Tony Harrison, directed by Peter Hall (1981)
  • Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser directed by Richard Eyre (1982), the National Theatre's first musical with Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit
  • Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, directed by Bill Bryden (1983)
  • Jean Seberg, musical with a book by Julian Barry, lyrics by Christopher Adler, and music by Marvin Hamlisch; directed by Peter Hall (1983).
  • The Mysteries from medieval Mystery plays in a version by Tony Harrison, directed by Bill Bryden (1985)
  • Pravda by Howard Brenton and David Hare, directed by David Hare, with Anthony Hopkins (1985)
  • Antony and Cleopatra directed by Peter Hall, with Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench (1987)


  • Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega, translated by Adrian Mitchell, directed by Declan Donnellan (1989)
  • Richard III starring Ian McKellen and directed by Richard Eyre (1990).
  • Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Steven Pimlott (British premiere) (1990)
  • The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett, directed by Nicholas Hytner, starring Nigel Hawthorne (1991)
  • Angels in America: Part One: Millennium Approaches; Part Two; Perestroika by Tony Kushner directed by Declan Donnellan ( 1991-92)
  • An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley, directed by Stephen Daldry (1992)
  • The David Hare Trilogy: Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, The Absence of War by David Hare, directed by Richard Eyre (1993)
  • Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, directed by Trevor Nunn (1993)
  • Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, directed by Declan Donnellan (1993)
  • Les parents terribles by Jean Cocteau, directed by Sean Mathias (1994)
  • A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, directed by Sean Mathias, with Judi Dench (1995)
  • King Lear directed by Richard Eyre, with Ian Holm (1997)
  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Frank McGuinness, directed by Simon McBurney (1997)


  • Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, directed by Michael Blakemore (1998)
  • Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Maureen Lipman and Hugh Jackman (1998)
  • The Merchant of Venice directed by Trevor Nunn, with Henry Goodman (1999)
  • Summerfolk by Maxim Gorky, directed by Trevor Nunn (1999)
  • Honk!, Laurence Olivier Award winner (1999)
  • Blue Orange by Joe Penhall directed by Roger Michell, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln (2000)
  • The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, directed by Peter Brook and performed by Kani and Ntshona (2000)
  • Far Side of the Moon written, directed and performed by Robert Lepage (2001)
  • Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones directed by John Caird, with Simon Russell Beale (2001)
  • South Pacific by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Philip Quast (2001)
  • The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare directed by Nicholas Hytner, with Alex Jennings and Phil Daniels (2001)
  • Vincent in Brixton by Nicholas Wright, directed by Richard Eyre, with Clare Higgins (2002)
  • The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy by Tom Stoppard, comprising: Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage, directed by Trevor Nunn, with computerised video designs by William Dudley (2002)
  • Anything Goes by Cole Porter, directed by Trevor Nunn, with John Barrowman and Sally Ann Triplett (2002)
  • Dinner by Moira Buffini, starring Harriet Walter, Nicholas Farrell and Catherine McCormack, directed by Fiona Buffini.


  • Jerry Springer - The Opera, a musical by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas (2003)
  • Henry V by William Shakespeare. A notable modern dress version directed by Nicholas Hytner starring Adrian Lester (2003).
  • Elmina's Kitchen written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, directed by Angus Jackson and starring Doña Croll, George Harris, Emmanuel Idowu, Oscar James, Paterson Joseph and Shaun Parkes (2003).
  • Democracy by Michael Frayn directed by Michael Blakemore (2003)
  • His Dark Materials, a two-part adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel directed by Nicholas Hytner starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper (2003)
  • The History Boys by Alan Bennett directed by Nicholas Hytner starring Richard Griffiths (2004)
  • Coram Boy by Helen Edmundson, directed by Melly Still (2005, 2006)
  • The Seafarer by Conor McPherson directed by the author, starring Jim Norton, Conleth Hill, Karl Johnson, Michael McElhatton and Ron Cook (2006)
  • Caroline, or Change Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Jack O'Brien (2006)
  • The Man of Mode directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Rory Kinnear as Sir Foppling Flutter (2007).
  • Landscape with Weapon written by Joe Penhall, directed by Roger Michell and starring Tom Hollander, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jason Watkins and Pippa Haywood (2007).
  • Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw, directed by Marianne Elliott (2007)
  • War Horse based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, presented in association with Handspring (2007).
  • Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Nicholas Hytner, starring Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker (2007-8).

Current and forthcoming productions

Productions for the January to June 2009 season include:

  • Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, a play by Tom Stoppard and André Previn
  • Mrs Affleck a new by Samuel Adamson from Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf
  • The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall (playwright), inspired by a book by William Feaver
  • England People Very Nice a new play by Richard Bean, the first of the Travelex £10 tickets productions for 2009
  • Burnt by the Sun, by Peter Flannery, from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov
  • Dido, Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe
  • Death and the King's Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, the second of the Travelex £10 tickets productions for 2009
  • Time and the Conways, a play by J. B. Priestley
  • Berlin a reading by David Hare
  • War Horse, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
  • Stovepipe, a new play by Adam Brace
  • Phèdre featuring Helen Mirren
  • The Observer, a play by Matt Charman, directed by Richard Eyre
  • Nation, based on a novel by Terry Pratchett, adapted by Mark Ravenhill

National Theatre Studio

The National Theatre studio is a development space on The Cut, 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.

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