Welcome to the 13th issue of the National Theatre Magazine. Whilst 13 may be unlucky for some, this summer at the NT we go from strength to strength. Read on to hear about just some of the ways you can share in the work your support is helping to create over the coming months.
The Dorfman Theatre continues to bring new and inventive theatre to the South Bank. This summer, it welcomes Jellyfish from the Bush Theatre and Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear – the Musical! direct from workshops at the New Work department. Jellyfish writer Ben Weatherill and Mr Gum's director Amy Hodge and designer Georgia Lowe give a flavour of their uplifting productions.
This summer we are also celebrating the revolutionary impact of National Theatre Live, ten years after its first broadcast direct from the Lyttelton Theatre. With almost 9 million people having joined the audience for the best of British theatre since the project began, we look at what goes in to every live broadcast and the impact for theatre-makers and fans around the globe.
NT newcomer Anson Boon and young NT veteran Hammed Animashaun talk about their hopes for their version of Athol Fugard’s heartbreaking three-hander, ‘Master Harold’… and the boys, and our Head of Tours and Visiting, Alison Rae, puts the National’s range of fantastic theatre tours in the spotlight.
The Boys of ‘Master Harold’
Hammed Animashaun and Anson Boon reflect on the task of bringing Athol Fugard’s ‘Master Harold’… and the boys to the Lyttelton stage in 2019.
Director Amy Hodge and designer Georgia Lowe speak about bringing Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear – the Musical! to life for audiences of all ages – very much a laughing matter.
National Theatre Live at Ten
Ten years on from the first broadcast of Phèdre, we take stock of the achievements and scale of the NT’s ground-breaking project to share the best of British theatre with audiences around the globe.
Rocking the Boat with Jellyfish
Ben Weatherill’s coming-of-age play, Jellyfish, comes to the Dorfman following a sold-out run at the Bush Theatre. He talks to us about returning to this tale of fish and chips, growing up and neurodiverse love.
The NT has offered tours since it first opened in 1976 but this summer sees the launch of several new offerings. From architecture to new work, find out how you can get to know your NT better.
When ‘Master Harold’… and the boys opened in New York in 1982, critic Frank Rich suggested that it ‘may even outlast the society that spawned it – the racially divided South Africa of apartheid’ (New York Times). With a new production coming into the Lyttelton Theatre from September, Rich has been proven right; but what does Athol Fugard’s play have to offer to a modern audience?
‘Master Harold’… is set in the city of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. In these early years of the formal politicised racial segregation adopted by the National Party, we are taken to ‘The St George’s Park Tea Room on a wet and windy afternoon’. There Sam and Willie, two middle-aged black waiters, are practising their steps for the finals of a ballroom dancing championship. Seventeen-year-old Hally, acknowledged by Athol Fugard as a semi-autobiographical figure, arrives from school to hide out in his parents’ tea room. Sam and Willie have been unlikely best friends to Hally his whole life; but he is Master Harold, and they are the boys.
‘It’s so subtle’, says Hammed Animashaun, who is playing Willie. ‘Just how it was: more to do with relationships and how these three characters coexist in this space. Apartheid itself has gone and the play has lasted; but these kinds of relationships are what persist.’ Anson Boon, playing Hally, agrees. ‘It is a masterpiece of a script; stories of this kind should never be forgotten.’
Initially banned from production in South Africa, ‘Master Harold’…and the boys is one of seven works by Athol Fugard to reach the National Theatre. Fugard himself directed five of these productions; he even helped Anthony Hopkins prepare his rasping South African accent for his performance in Pravda when the two overlapped in the building. However, Animashaun and Boon are younger actors coming to his work for the first time. ‘Never have I had to develop a whole ideology that I am totally convinced by to play a person’, says Boon. ‘What makes this even more tricky – and thus attractive to me – is how dark and strenuous it's going to be to inhabit this person who has grown up under institutionalised racism.’
Animashaun’s character, Willie, expresses his knotty principles largely indirectly. ‘When I got the script through, I realised he’s such a complicated character. There are many things that he does wrong: his attitude towards women, the way he treats Master Harold. On the one hand [he is] so disrespectful, but on the other, to Master Harold, everything is respect. This is a guy who wants to please those who have belittled him and dehumanised him for so long, but not please those that look like him or have been treated the same way as him.’
‘What makes this even more tricky [will be]…to inhabit this person who has grown up under institutionalised racism.’
There are unsettling familiarities in the domestic set up of the drama; avoiding any exhibitionism of evil, Fugard instead concentrates on moments that are simple, trivial and human. Sam has essentially brought Harry up, bridging a gap left by his father’s emotional absence since the Second World War. They share memories of flying kites and doing homework, whilst Sam tries to help Willie with his quickstep and problems with his dancing partner. ‘There is such love there,’ says Animashaun. ‘But there are also so many rules. It’s extremely heartbreaking. Unspoken rules, rules that are still relevant today. In the climate we are in – even nowadays – divisions can become rules. As the play progresses, it becomes rife with tensions that are still very much relatable today.’
Little white boy in short trousers and a black man old enough to be his father flying a kite.
It’s not every day you see that.
But why strange? Because the one is white and the other black?
I don’t know. Would have been just as strange, I suppose, if it had been me and my Dad…
Hammed Animashaun reunites with Lucian Msamati, who plays Sam, after orking together during the run of Amadeus in 2016. Animashaun was also to be seen in Barber Shop Chronicles (2017) and The Threepenny Opera (2016). ‘I’m so excited to be coming back to the NT’, he says. ‘I miss that place – the homie atmosphere, it’s so close, such a community. Doing Threepenny [Opera] and Amadeus and Barber Shop [Chronicles] – I love working in an ensemble – but I'm so excited to be doing this three-hander. I’m so happy to be working with Lucian again; Uncle Lucian as I call him. It’s a privilege; I can’t wait to get into the rehearsal room with him, and with Roy [Alexander Weise, the director].’
Anson Boon has plenty of experience in front of the camera, but the Lyttelton stage will be a new challenge for him. ‘Theatre is not only such a valued part of our British culture, but it's also an international attraction. I think the NT is definitely known for providing an international audience with very thought-provoking, topical storytelling, played in a very diverse variety of ways.’
‘I’m extremely nervous…’ says Animashaun. ‘And we’re also not natural ballroom dancers..! But mainly I’m excited to be sharing this play with people who perhaps haven’t seen it or read it or seen other work by Athol Fugard. Through Threepenny I got to develop my knowledge of Brecht, through Amadeus my appreciation of classical music, and Barber Shop has been one of the highlights of my career. To have the opportunity to now come back and tell this story is everything.’
Athol Fugard at the NT
A Lesson from Aloes (1980)
The Island (1983 and 2000)
‘Master Harold’…and the boys (1984 and 2019)
The Road to Mecca (1985)
A Place with the Pigs (1988)
My Children! My Africa! (1990)
Sizwe Banzi is Dead (2007)
Andy Stanton’s villainous Mr Gum schemes his way into the Dorfman Theatre this summer, aided and abetted by director Amy Hodge and designer Georgia Lowe. Together they speak about bears, hot air balloons and imagination in theatre.
‘The script was like nothing I had ever read before. It had me laughing out loud and I knew these kinds of shows don’t come around very often’, says Georgia Lowe. Amy Hodge agrees, ‘I’d read the books to my eldest, who absolutely loves them. We haven’t laughed as much as that together over any bit of reading.’
It’s clear that Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear – the Musical! promises to be a very funny show, but what is it actually about? For those unfamiliar with Andy Stanton’s books, which are something of a cult among young readers, Hodge describes the plot. ‘It’s a quest. An adventure of a young nine-year-old called Polly who’s trying to do the best by a bear that turns up in her anarchic town of Lamonic Bibber. She has to get the bear back to its homeland, while fighting off the villains, Mr Gum and Billy, who are trying to steal him to make him dance so they can make loads of money. She’s the only grown-up in this world and the wonky townsfolk she lives with aren’t there to help.’
‘It’s anarchic, bonkers, hilarious, silly and loud’, adds Lowe. ‘There’s a puppetry element to the show and the music, written by Jim Fortune, is absolutely brilliant – it adds such energy to the piece.’
‘It’s anarchic, bonkers, hilarious, silly and loud.’
This is author Andy Stanton’s first play; with a script peppered with stage directions like ‘the balloon is going to crash into the treetops of an island’, Hodge was aware of the challenge that lay ahead, but she was not deterred. ‘When I first got involved it was one act, [and] quite messy, but you could tell it had something magical. The books are very aware of the construct of reading. They consciously push at the boundaries of what a book can do and the musical does the same: how can we push the experience of theatre in every way?’
After getting hold of the script for the first time, Hodge and Lowe began planning how they were going to do their own messing around with theatre form. ‘It’s been quite a journey’, says Lowe. ‘We’ve done a number of research and development sessions at the NT Studio and so have been able to trial many of our ideas to discover whether they work or not. One of the main characters, Padlock the Bear, is a puppet. The central relationship really pivots around this.’
‘One session really focused on puppets’, says Hodge, ‘which are obviously quite technical. We’ve had one very much focused on script and score, and then we’ve done work on the movement as well.’
These sessions in the NT Studio, supported by the NT’s New Work department, have laid crucial groundwork before rehearsals formally start six weeks ahead of opening. ‘Before rehearsals for something like this, you need to have answered many of the conceptual ideas’, says Hodge. ‘The workshops have allowed us to think about what a musical can be, and give us the space and time to be genuinely innovative about how you can present work for younger audiences. It’s a truly multi-disciplinary piece of work with acting, design, movement, puppets, singing and sound. All the collaborators are working together to pull this off.’
‘It’s been very fun as well’, laughs Lowe, ‘lots of hilarious conversations and suggestions. It’s that type of show where actually anything goes, so you find yourself having to choose from a plethora of mad ideas – that is of course until the budget conversations start happening!’
‘Budgets force you into inventive holes’, agrees Hodge, ‘but there’s something about the spirit of the show that’s rough and ready. It needs to bare things to the audience and trust them to see the mechanics of what you’re doing. It’s the opposite of patronising. Kids know what’s real and what’s not. They take pleasure in imagining and are the best at it. Tapping into that is the key.’
Hodge and Lowe reflect on their own formative theatre experiences, and the role they have played in their careers. ‘Every time I went to the theatre as a kid was a fond memory’, says Lowe. ‘I absolutely loved it and knew I’d end up working in it.’
‘Kids know what’s real and what’s not. They take pleasure in imagining.’
‘I began by doing loads of work in community theatre’, says Hodge. ‘I was interested in how you can use theatre as a tool to entertain, engage, [and] bring people together, and I do think this show is doing that. It has got a beautiful message. It’s not frivolous. [Writer] Andy’s really intelligently talking about themes of how we treat the other, and how to look after those we love, yet within that there’s this gleefully malevolent character of Mr Gum. He’s thoroughly entertaining and potentially the kids will end up rooting for him as much as anyone else. There’s fun to be had in liking the villain even though the heart of the piece still sits in this beautiful friendship between a girl and a bear.’
With a script that already imposes lots of technical demands, making the piece a musical feels like a bold decision, but Hodge and Lowe did not hesitate. ‘It felt very naturally like it had to be a musical’, says Hodge. ‘We’ve tried to find a language for the music which captures the anarchic spirit of the books. We’ve got four incredibly talented musicians who will all be very present in the show. One of them, a guy called Nick Pyn, makes his own instruments. He’s got one called a “cocolele” – a ukulele made out of coconut – so you get all these wonky instruments that give you fantastic sounds. It felt like music was a really clear, magical way to expand the imagination in this form.’
Andy Stanton, from whose imagination Mr Gum originally sprung, has been involved in every step of the journey so far. ‘Having Andy so involved has been brilliant’, says Lowe. ‘He created the world after all, and although we are reimagining it for the stage his ideas are nonetheless crucial.’
‘It’s the first show that Andy has written’, Hodge says, ‘so it’s been a steep learning curve about the medium: what actors and the creative team bring to the table and how storytelling operates on the stage with an audience present. He’s done a fantastic job.’
As the piece moves from the workshops to the rehearsal room, it is clear that collaboration will be vital to bringing everything together. ‘We’ve got lots of skilful people and a fantastic creative team’, Hodge says. ‘The talent in every single person, from prop makers to production manager to costume, is mind blowing’, adds Lowe, ‘and I feel so lucky that we have all these people working together to make this show happen.’ Hodge continues, ‘We can’t undersell the craft. It’s pushing all of us hugely while being fun and joyous. It’s going to celebrate us as a community being together, thinking about the world in which we live while having a giggle!’
Nine-year-old Polly seems to sum it up nicely in the script when she says, ‘Look at the world, a-glimmerin’ with potential…You can get it wrong or get it right, but just keep getting it.’
National Theatre Live, the NT’s ground-breaking project to broadcast world-class theatre to cinemas in the UK and internationally, turned ten years old on 25 June 2019. Across a decade, National Theatre Live has brought work to more than 3,500 cinema screens around the globe; almost 130,000 individual screenings, to an audience of nearly 9 million. Not bad for a – in the words of Nicholas Hytner – ‘new experiment’ intended to reach ‘tens of thousands’.
That first broadcast back in 2009 was Jean Racine’s Phèdre, with a cast that included Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren, Academy Award-nominee Ruth Negga and Dominic Cooper, who had previously been part of the companies for legendary NT shows His Dark Materials and The History Boys. Despite the professionalism of the cast, staff director Nadia Fall (now Artistic Director at Theatre Royal Stratford East) confessed at the time that ‘everyone held their breath, not knowing if the concept would work at all’. Any doubts melted away the moment cinema projectionists linked with the satellite broadcast. Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, reviewing the transmission from a cinema across the river from the NT, gave it five stars and wrote ‘Last night it was shown that a supposedly difficult classical tragedy can speak simultaneously to people across the globe… my hunch is that this is only the beginning of a revolution in making theatre available in ways of which we had never dreamed’.
Part of the charm of theatre rests on its unpredictability and its intimacy. Whilst National Theatre Live broadcasts are faithful to the immediacy of theatre and can capture nuance and textural details that would otherwise go unseen beyond the middle of the stalls, one unexpected emotion reported by actors and audience members alike has been a feeling of being deeply moved at the thought of experiencing the play simultaneously with thousands of people around the world. Playwright James Graham, whose acclaimed satire of 70s politics, This House, was broadcast in May 2013, hoped people would respond ‘like a football crowd when they heard their town mentioned…I like to imagine a Mexican wave of laughter going round the country.’
‘You do feel satisfaction when you're playing to an audience that's both there and beyond the room... It's about going to a cinema and experiencing it in a body of people as you would in the theatre.’
— Benedict Cumberbatch
Specialist camera directors are brought in for each broadcast, to translate the work of the theatrical director to the big screen. Most filmings include a range of cameras; fixed, tracking, perhaps a crane in larger spaces. The director will try and match the rhythm of the play in the broadcast; rapier-sharp farces might be cut in a lively manner, whilst a grand tragedy would likely take a more measured approach. The capture is fine-tuned through camera rehearsals, to make sure the production team and the broadcast team are as prepared as possible ahead of the event, but the actors are not aware of which camera is being used at any particular moment, helping them stay within the tempo of the performance rather than playing to camera.
Did you know?
Every NT production is filmed for posterity, regardless of whether it is broadcast through National Theatre Live. You can book to go and see these recordings at our Archive for free. For more information, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/archive
One aspect of the production does have to adapt to this secondary medium; HD cameras and long lenses allowing close shots are more perceptive than the eye of the audience member, and as such the Wigs, Hair & Make-Up department (WH&M) find themselves pressing new skills into service to achieve the same ‘look’ for a production on screen as reaches theatre audiences. The knowledge that this happens can be as equally important for the actor as for the audience. Giuseppe Cannas, Head of WH&M, and his team, revisit every wig to make sure that it will withstand scrutiny. ‘We don’t have five hours to get an actor ready; we have quick changes. About 80% of the job we do is actually for the actors, not the audience.’
‘I grew up in Manchester in the 60s. If I had been able to see Olivier's National Theatre at my local cinema, I would have gone all of the time.’
— Nicholas Hytner
The ‘grease paint’ is stripped back and special effects make-up has to achieve an Oscar-worthy naturalism. Imagine the intricacies of Danny Boyle’s 2011 version of Frankenstein, replete with head-staples, sewn body make-up and period costumes. Indeed, with that particular play, the team achieved everything twice, with both Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretations of the title role filmed and broadcast.
Each broadcast uses over 1,500 hours of satellite and transatlantic fibre time, with over 500 unique camera positions. War Horse was the first live-to-cinema ultra-high definition broadcast. The 2015 production of Hamlet which was broadcast from the Barbican Centre, achieved a special feat when the company were able to take their bows in front of their live audience in the Barbican Theatre, and then run next door to the Barbican Cinema to repeat the call for the National Theatre Live audience.
This particular broadcast has now been seen by over a million people (for context, it would take over two years of consecutive eight-show-weeks to do the same in the theatre alone). National Theatre Live has now broadcast from 20 different stages in the UK. Broadcasts from other theatres have included Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse, A Streetcar Named Desire from the Young Vic, The Madness of George III from Nottingham Playhouse, and, from London’s West End, the Chichester Festival Theatre production of King Lear and Playful Productions’ The Audience.
Lisa Burger, Executive Director and joint Chief Executive of the NT, one of the first people to spot the potential for broadcasts over a decade ago, says ‘When we started NT Live back in June 2009, our main aim was – and still is – to give as many people as possible access to the best of British theatre. We’re really proud that we’ve been able to share so many incredible productions with people across the UK and the world who otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to see them.’
Upcoming NT Live Broadcasts
25 July The Lehman Trilogy
17 October A Midsummer Night’s Dream (from the Bridge Theatre)
7 November Hansard
28 November Present Laughter (from The Old Vic)
To find a venue near you, visit ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk
National Theatre Live is sponsored by Sky Arts
It’s nearly a year since Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish debuted at the Bush Theatre, where it enjoyed a sold-out run and a haul of glowing reviews highlighting its ‘important, thoughtful’ (Evening Standard) and ‘genuinely moving’ (Time Out) impact. Asked how he’s feeling about it sailing into the NT’s Dorfman Theatre, Weatherill says, ‘It’s really exciting... it's so rare that you get to do anything again in this industry.’
Because this isn’t simply a straight transfer; Weatherill has had the opportunity to rework the script for the new production. ‘Not only was it really exciting to bring it back to the National because it was developed here initially, but it was exciting to ask: what would we do differently? What do we keep the same? It was a good opportunity to look at what we didn’t have time to look at during the first rehearsal period, and watching [the initial run] again and again at the Bush gave me a completely new perspective on it.’
Despite the great reviews, Weatherill hasn’t shied away from continuing to work on the play, ‘The second half has changed a lot. I knew what had to happen in terms of plot, but now we’re refining it to find the most dramatically satisfying version of the scenes that were already there. The biggest change is in the character of Dominic, who was such a late discovery for the play. The question was, how can we find the best story for this character and make Nicky’s [Priest] performance shine? But it’s still the same play; all the same ingredients are there.’
Those ingredients combine to make a love story. ‘I’m a sucker for romcoms,’ Weatherill says proudly, ‘and this version is doubling down on some of those more traditional elements, asking what that looks like for these two characters and trying to create something satisfying.’
The two characters in question are Kelly and Neil, who we see embarking on a coming of age romance in a seaside town. Kelly has a wicked sense of humour and a knack for finding washed-up sea creatures on the shore. She also has Down’s Syndrome, which – according to Nicky – is the least interesting thing about her.
‘We think we’ve seen it all before: two people meet and fall in love, and the obstacles have been seen and explored. So I thought: who haven’t we seen fall in love? Which is where I landed on the character of Kelly falling in love with someone who is neurotypical. It’s very rare that someone with disabilities is seen in a leading role, let alone a romantic leading role. I think it’s important to see that all different kinds of people fall in love and have challenges that we all go through; and that’s when change happens. Sometimes it takes putting people front and centre to do that.
‘It's important to see that all different kinds of people fall in love’
‘Access to theatre, to stages and to stories on those stages is being rightly discussed at the minute. On some levels, this might not be my story to tell, but I really care About it and we’re trying to tell it in the right way with the right people involved.’
This way that has been continually informed by the long-term collaboration with Sarah Gordy, who plays Kelly. Weatherill explains, ‘I had Sarah in my mind from the get-go as a talented performer I’d seen with Down’s Syndrome who I wanted to get this script to. I’d seen her in a play at the Royal Exchange, and I knew it was important to get it to her after my initial period of research because if she liked me, liked the idea, thought it was a story that was worth telling, then that would ensure the character
was created authentically. I knew I had to do that with someone like Sarah.’
First though, Ben Weatherill sent his early draft to dramaturg Nina Steiger, who was at that time working at the Soho Theatre. By the time of workshopping the play with Sarah, Nina had moved across to the NT’s New Work department. This meant a week’s paid exploration in a dedicated space with support from the NT’s dramaturgs and the opportunity toshare work at the end of the week with the wider team at the NT.
‘I’d never had that kind of intense time working on a script before. We focused on trying to make sure that this story worked for both us and Sarah, with really in-depth text work. When it came to the sharing on the Friday, that’s when I knew we were onto something. There’s something that just happens when Sarah performs and it’s magic; seeing everyone in that room transported was really special. That sounds cliché, but it’s true. It completely made sense and I knew all the ingredients were there.’
You’d be forgiven for thinking that such a process creates Kelly’s character in the image of Sarah Gordy. Weatherill stresses that this isn’t the case. ‘The cheeky, charming sense of humour is the same, but the character of Kelly is very different from Sarah. When I say the piece was written for her, I mean that it was about finding the material that pushed her and sang. We’re good mates now, and I hope to continue to write for Sarah – so long as she’ll have me around! And to write characters who are integral to stories that have nothing to do with her Down’s Syndrome.’
At the time of this conversation, Weatherill is currently in the writer’s limbo of having submitted the rehearsal draft for the actors, unable to work on it further until everyone comes together in the rehearsal room. For some, it’s an excruciating time but Weatherill sounds relaxed. ‘We locked the script down about a month in advance to give everyone in the cast time with it, so rehearsals are really interesting because a lot of my job is already done – I can just sit back and enjoy it! It’s partly terrifying to
know it’s locked down, but freeing to remember that it’s just the version of the play that we’re doing now.’
Jellyfish’s journey seems far from drawing to a close; Ben Weatherill is also adapting the story for the screen. ‘It’s a 90-minute single drama adaption for the BBC but we haven’t had the green light yet. The challenge of that is about asking what parts of our story are going to work for a completely different medium because television just eats at your story! How are we making sure that the issues in the play are still there? In a play, something happens and the characters come together to talk about it, but that’s not very interesting for TV, so it’s been a real challenge – but a good one. The seal sanctuary features prominently!’
When asked about his hopes for the run in the Dorfman and the play’s future life, Weatherill is modest about his own success: ‘I’m hoping that the spotlight is on the right things. Hopefully what this can do is say: look at what performers like Sarah and Nicky are doing and be inspired to create great roles for them. I hope it can open a door to more stories like this being done, being told in the right way with the right people.’
All performances of Jellyfish play in a more relaxed performance environment.
For more information, visit the show's page on the National Theatre Website.
The National Theatre is like the proverbial iceberg: foremost you see the auditoriums and foyers, but behind the scenes, there is a warren of corridors, dressing rooms, workshops, construction areas and backstage facilities. Our talented teams are hard at work, going about the daily business of staging multiple productions, for 52 weeks of the year.
While all that skilled work happens out of sight, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing – in fact, probably no other building can boast such a concentration of different theatrical talents under one roof – in effect, a theatre factory. We’ve offered tours ever since the building opened in 1976 and over 40 years later, they are as popular as ever, with a wide variety of tours now on offer.
As Members, we hope you’ll already know about the ‘classic’ Backstage Tours which take you inside the NT operation, exploring the auditoriums, the dressing room block, scenic art workshops, and along Drum Road, the artery connecting all the backstage areas. ‘It’s not like going on a tour of a museum in the way you might have done when you were a child,’ explains Head of Tours and Visiting, Alison Rae, ‘In a museum the things you see are static. At the NT things are changing every day – so no two tours are the same.’
While one tour group might see the mid-way point in the transformation from bare polystyrene block to stylish gilded bronze statue, the next day people may happen upon actors warming up on stage, or see the majestic Olivier drum revolve silently to reveal huge items of set through the stage floor. On occasion, the experience will be even more intimate – while tour groups are always asked to be as unobtrusive as possible when people are working, it’s not unusual for a member of staff or a cast member to approach to explain what it is that they are working on. ‘Our colleagues are often incredibly generous with their time,’ says Rae.
There’s a small, dedicated team of guides who receive one-on-one briefings from the various departments at the NT as part of their training so that they can faithfully represent and talk about their work, and they are always happy to answer questions. The tours can be sociable occasions, too, and a wonderful chance to meet fellow theatre lovers – tour groups often enjoy swapping stories about productions they have seen at the National. Rae says it’s lovely to see people bonding in that way, and a few couples have taken that bonding even further: ‘We’ve had marriage proposals on the Olivier stage, and one in front of the War Horse puppet. Thankfully they all said yes!’
You might think that seeing how much detailed work goes in to achieving particular on-stage effects might shatter the illusion, but Rae says the tours seem to enhance that sense of wonder: ‘Of course we avoid showing anything that could spoil a big dramatic moment, but at other times people are just delighted by the skill and craft involved in our productions. More recently, we’ve been able to talk more about the level of preparation for NT Live shows, to come up to High Definition standard for costumes, wigs, hair, make-up as well as set and props. A particular moment I always enjoy sharing is explaining why there are so many cheese graters in the Textile Studio…’
There’s already a number of more in-depth visits focused on single aspects of the NT. Costume, Wig, Hair and Make-up Tours focus on the fascinating processes behind the making and maintenance of the costumes seen on the NT’s stages. ‘It’s always a pleasure to see the fascination when we bring out our box of scars and skin prosthetics such as those used by the actor playing The Creature in Frankenstein. And when you see visitors starting to compute the time involved in creating a “wig-heavy” show (think Amadeus) when we mention that it takes about 35 hours, to create one full head of hair wig.’
The tours on offer go beyond the work on the stages. Though relatively young, the National Theatre is a listed building and is regularly attracts fans of modernist rchitecture. Our Architecture Tours run several times a week and give a fascinating insight in to architect Denys Lasdun’s now iconic building.
We’ve also recently launched bespoke Tours for Two – the perfect gift experience. Tailored to the interests of the guests attending, these evening tours start off with a welcome drink of bubbly and are focused around the artistry and craftsmanship seen in our workshops.
In 2018 we added our special Stage Management Tour which is available only to members and reveals the skill and industry of some of the unsung heroes of our productions. The tour takes in rehearsal spaces, the dressing rooms and the ‘SM Corner’, where, just out of view of the audience, the whole operation of running a show is co-ordinated.
Some of our members may recall a poster from 1976 that proclaimed: ‘The National Theatre is Yours’. It’s as true now as it was then: your support as a Member makes possible every single piece of work done here. Why not come and see more of what we do? This August we are able to share some exclusive new tours with our members and supporters including:
This evening architectural odyssey starts with a bespoke cocktail in Terrace restaurant and bar, before uncovering the design secrets and history of Lasdun’s iconic modernist building (allow up to 2 hours).
Penny Gaffs and Pleasure Gardens
SE1 has been a place of entertainment long before the National Theatre. On this tour around the Waterloo area, you’ll hear stories about the trickrider who founded the modern circus; the founder of the London Botanic Garden; and an MP for Lambeth who was also a convicted fraudster (allow up to 90 minutes).
The Dorfman Theatre
This evening tour focuses on the last of the National’s three auditoriums to open: the Dorfman Theatre (originally called the Cottesloe when it opened in 1977). Join us to learn more about how the space was repurposed in 2014 and how its flexible staging makes it truly unique at the NT.
NT New and Old
A special, one-off tour which takes place at the NT Studio building on The Cut. This is a rare opportunity to hear more about the work of two key National Theatre departments – the NT Archive and the NT’s New Work department – as well as a chance to visit the first architect-designed, purpose-built theatre workshop in the
Please note that space will be limited to a maximum of 12 people.
Booking details for summer tours will be announced to Members by email, but if you have any questions or enquiries, please contact the Tours Team via [email protected]