It seems strange to think that I’ve been living in London for over five years without going on a backstage tour of the National Theatre, especially as it’s one of my very favourite theatres and I’ve seen countless productions there. I decided to rectify this on the day I was due to see all three Chekhovs in the Olivier; I was already down to spend twelve hours here: why not another two?!
We were met by our guide in the (recently refurbished) NT Foyer and given stylish orange jackets to wear. Our guide took us up to the third floor, and against a backdrop of the River Thames told us about the history of the theatre. This is more complex than I can do justice to in a blog post, but I will say that the National Theatre company started out at the Old Vic while they figured out where to build the theatre. The foundation stone was moved around the south and north banks of the Thames so often that the Queen Mother, who had the job of repeatedly unveiling it, was rumoured to have commented that it should be put on wheels. Eventually the current site on the south bank, next to the Southbank Centre, was chosen. Personally I think this was the right place for the theatre, as the south bank has a long history of being a cultural centre, dating from Elizabethan days when theatres were habitually situated on the south bank as the City, north of the river, did not allow theatres.
Anyway, I digress. The theatre building was designed by Denys Lasdun, who created it from concrete, trying to construct a building that was welcoming and unpretentious. Some people hate it, personally I’m rather fond of it. I genuinely do find it to be a very welcoming place that I always feel comfortable in, whether I’m here to see a show or not.
We were taken into the Olivier auditorium (named after Sir Laurence Olivier, the NT’s first Artistic Director), where later that day I was due to see some Chekhov. I was excited to see the cast warming up on stage as our guide talked. The design of the Olivier was based on a Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus, with seats stretching around a circular stage at a very specific angle of 118°: this is because of an actor’s peripheral vision, the idea being that they can stand in the centre of the stage and see every audience member without having to turn their head. The theatre was also designed to provide a good view from every seat, and having sat all over the auditorium at various times, I can personally confirm that it is successful.
Another interesting point concerns the colour of the seats: the dark purple was apparently chosen either because it was the colour of the heather surrounding the theatre in Greece, or because it was Laurence Olivier’s favourite colour. I must admit that both of these theories appeal to me.
The NT’s famous drum revolve has been used in many productions but when it was originally built it was ahead of its time, and didn’t actually work for several years. There is a great deal of space above, below and behind the stage, which enables shows to be performed in rep.
We moved on to the Lyttelton auditorium, which is more of a traditional theatre with a proscenium arch. The arch, however, is movable, and we caught a glimpse of what it can do as the crew were testing the stage for the forthcoming show, The Red Barn. As we moved around we saw some costumes on display. Our guide explained that show designers often strive for authenticity, for instance, the costumes for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – set in the 1920s – were sewn on real 1920s sewing machine, while the rigging for the production of Treasure Island was knotted to the sound of sea shanties.
Being a backstage tour, at some point we had to go backstage – and I was excited to see the theatre’s dressing rooms. Built around a central courtyard, they have given rise to a lovely tradition in which just before a press night, all the actors bang on the walls in support, creating a cacophony of sound that has been heard as far away as Waterloo.
The final part of the tour saw us visit the workshop, which is the largest factory in central London, in which scenery and props are made and painted. We saw scenery from the forthcoming production of Amadeus, and props from the Christmas production of Peter Pan. Finally, we got to take a close look at props from over the years, including foam decorations, severed hands, and puppet polar bear heads from His Dark Materials.
Tours take place regularly and are definitely worth trying: I learned a lot about the theatre, even though I thought I knew it pretty well.