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This battle over the National Theatre’s architecture is as tense as any play

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National Theatre, 2022
Putting on the Ritz: A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National Theatre, 2022 - Manuel Harlan

Theatre audiences rarely have to think about architecture – a well-designed theatre ensures that awareness of the building itself recedes and connection between the players and audience deepens once the houselights fade.

Reading Richard Pilbrow’s exhaustive account of the making of the National Theatre reminded me of a time when that precious connection was broken, during Ned Bennett’s inventive production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon in 2018. The play’s audacious design required ripping up the floorboards of the National’s Dorfman stage to create a pit filled with water – which was, in a pivotal scene, covered in petrol and set alight. But an issue with the lighting rig brought the play to a halt: over 15 long minutes, in the glare of unforgiving florescent strip lighting, the audience watched staff fixing the problem in the rafters while the actors prowled the stage visibly frustrated.

Pilbrow, who died in December, has been called the “godfather” of modern stage lighting. He spent 60 years studying, producing and designing theatre, and here painstakingly outlines the difficult and protracted founding and subsequent controversial life of the National. In A Sense of Theatre, he co-opts various theatre folk to help tell the story, including backstage practitioners, all the National’s artistic directors, and broadsheet critics, as well as incorporating diagrams, architectural drawings, production stills, archival photographs, an overview of global theatre spaces and British theatre history.

While all that meticulous detail is mostly insightful, its minutiae would have benefitted from a more stringent edit. There are only so many times the reader can be told that the Olivier auditorium – designed by Denys Lasdun, modelled on the outdoor theatre at Epidaurus in Greece – is challenging to perform in, or that the acoustics, sightlines and audience cohesion in the concrete-bound Lyttleton leave a lot to be desired – even if these observations are repeated by luminaries such as Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale or Judi Dench.

What is surprising is how long – since 1848 – the notion of a British national theatre had been in gestation. France has had one since 1680 and many other European countries had national theatres for 200 years by the time ours finally arrived in 1976. It was spearheaded by an indefatigable Laurence Olivier, the National’s founding artistic director who also chaired the National Theatre Building Committee.

As meetings with Lasdun became more fractious, Olivier delegated Pilbrow to serve as a liaison between a committee given to confusing, contradictory opinions about the actor/audience relationship and an architect who knew nothing about theatre design but was intransigent about improvements to the Olivier and Lyttleton. The previously unpublished minutes from these meetings are fascinating, reading like the script of a very tense play.

The National Theatre
'A clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting': The National Theatre - Chris Harris/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, the building’s uncompromising brutalist aesthetic engendered a storm of hostility when it first opened in 1976. King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, went as far as describing the theatre as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. With its emphatic cantilevered terraces and fly tower, Lasdun’s design does impose itself on its stretch of the Thames like something indomitably industrial but it has become an indelible and much-loved part of London life.

We learn that the National’s smallest stage, the Dorfman – formerly the Cottesloe – is the most beloved of its three auditoria among actors and practitioners precisely because its intimate audience/performer relationship and flexible staging makes a lot of innovative work possible. It was, ironically, something of an afterthought and sidelined by Lasdun in his architectural plans. Thankfully, when Peter Hall took over from Olivier as artistic director, he had the foresight to make the reinstatement of the Cottesloe a condition of his accepting the leadership position. But Lasdun claimed he was too busy to design it. Instead, the task of ensuring a design for the Cottesloe fell to Pilbrow.

A Sense of Theatre is a rather granular crunch through the status quo of British theatre, refracted through a microscopic lens focused on the National Theatre that might be best suited to theatre completist. But I really appreciated learning about Pilbrow’s essential contributions to the British theatre’s most emblematic building as it enters an unprecedented era, helmed by its first woman and person of colour, Indhu Rubasingham.


A Sense of Theatre is published by Unicorn at £45. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books