How The National Theatre Was Born

Last Updated 21 May 2024

How The National Theatre Was Born

Rob Halliday helped the late Richard Pilbrow write his account of the National Theatre's journey from idea to icon. Here, Rob tells Londonist how a brutalist National Theatre was conceived, why it was so difficult to pull off, and why Ken Dodd led to its creators realising what they'd got wrong...

The theatre being built
A brutalist building rises. JE Rackham courtesy of Carole Ellis.

Once something's been there for long enough, it tends to just get taken for granted. You stop thinking about it. You stop wondering about it, about how it came to exist. It's just there.

That's perhaps true of the National Theatre, sitting on the south bank of the Thames as it has been since about 1973 (though the building only finally opened in 1976). At the time it was revolutionary compared to the traditional West End theatres: the building and its two main auditoria, formed from crisp textured concrete instead of plaster and drapes. The lighting clean and sharp, not from dusty chandeliers. It had air conditioning and toilets aplenty, and its foyers were open to anyone and everyone all day long.

A man in front of a lighting desk
Lighting designer Richard Pilbrow got more involved with the design of the theatre than he'd planned.

"It could have been an entirely different building"

It's often forgotten that the 1976 opening of the National Theatre building came 13 years after the National Theatre Company gave its first performance at its original home, the Old Vic — and more than a hundred years after the idea of a national theatre was first proposed. The National might not have been on the South Bank. One early proposal had it slotted behind the British Museum, another in South Kensington. Or it could have been an entirely different building by the river: in 1951 Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) laid a foundation stone for a building that never saw the light of day. Even when the final architect Denys Lasdun was appointed in 1963, his brief was to create a National Theatre and Opera House on a site behind where the London Eye now stands. The Opera House was ultimately sacrificed and the National moved downstream to the other side of Waterloo Bridge. But some aspects of its terraced form make more sense when you understand they originally related to a second, almost mirror-image building.

An auditorium under construction
The Olivier Auditorium under construction in 1972. JE Rackham courtesy of Carole Ellis.

Inside, Lasdun's brief became to design two theatres in two different styles to suit different types of play (the third theatre, now called the Dorfman, was cut then re-added late in the day). But the early 1960s were an interesting time to be designing a theatre. Two world wars had broken the link to the likes of Matcham, Sprague, Phipps and Crewe — architects who'd built what we now think of as the 'traditional' theatres of the West End and across Britain. The 1960s were a time of new-found optimism. As tentative first steps at creating new kinds of theatres began — in Nottingham, Leatherhead, Chichester — architects such as Peter Moro, Roderick Ham and Powell & Moya conceived buildings that in materials and form were altogether alien to the theatrical establishment in the country.

The Olivier Theatre being built
The Olivier ended up being one of three auditoriums inside the National Theatre. JE Rackham courtesy of Carole Ellis.

The National Theatre grew out of the company Laurence Olivier had created at Chichester, performing on the thrust stage there. But Olivier somehow sensed that Chichester made it harder for him as a performer to connect with the audience than in the traditional theatres. He thought it important that the theatres for the National were better: "Cannot we concentrate on making a place where the actors feel marvellous?" he asked.

Olivier assembled a Building Committee of the leading theatre minds of the day. They first met on 3 January 1963; in the autumn of that year they played their part in choosing the architect, settling on Denys Lasdun after he arrived for the interview without an entourage, confessing he knew nothing about designing a theatre but was happy to learn from them all. They set out to explore why it felt like some theatres 'worked' and others didn't — measuring the distance to the furthest seat of different theatres, ultimately making it a key design goal that no seat be further than 65 feet from the stage.

Larry Olivier looking louche in a cravat
Laurence Olivier was instrumental in the theatre's construction. Image: Allan warren via creative commons

"Yes, but who'd build a violin out of f**ing concrete?"

Sitting in on those meetings was Richard Pilbrow, who since 1957 had helped establish the role of lighting designer in British theatre. He had been chosen by Olivier to light the National's opening shows, and ultimately had been invited onto the building committee. He soon realised that the powerful theatre figures brought in to guide Lasdun seemed to often not understand how performance spaces actually worked, each bringing different opinions that would sometimes change from meeting to meeting. Lasdun would often end up confused. As a result, Pilbrow became more deeply involved in the physical design of the theatres as well as the technical design of the innovative equipment it would contain. His company, Theatre Projects, would ultimately design the smallest of the three theatres in the building, the Cottesloe (now Dorfman) when it was added back into the project late in the day.

The result, after much discussion and five quite different versions, was the open stage Olivier Theatre. The smaller Lyttelton Theatre would have the more traditional proscenium arch. This, it was thought, would be easy enough.

People on a stage
The Olivier's drum revolve under construction. Image: Philip Sayer.

But the process of actually building the National was fraught. It was a complex building filled with brand new, custom made, cutting edge theatre technology, being built in a difficult time in British history — roaring inflation, soaring oil prices, the three-day week. It ultimately opened three years late and without all the technology working. To Richard Pilbrow's mind, the theatres presented a contradiction: they felt like something quite new, and the public appreciated them for that. But the two bigger theatres were very hard spaces for cast and audience to connect: a theatre should be like a musical instrument for an actor, but as the actor Albert Finney once famously said, "Yes, but who'd build a violin out of f**ing concrete?"

A stage set up fro a show
Staging for The Shaughraun in the Oliver Theatre. Image: Philip Carter.

"During a performance by Ken Dodd, he had an epiphany..."

From the National, Pilbrow went on to work on the refurbishment of the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, a very traditional theatre designed by those masters from an earlier era, CJ Phipps and Frank Matcham. On its re-opening in 1978, during a performance by the comedian Ken Dodd, he had an epiphany about what made these old theatres work. It wasn't the distance of the furthest seat, it was how many people you could pack in as closely to the stage as possible. The Olivier, he realised, struggled because it had twice the volume of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane yet held half the number of people. It became his life's work to help architects to create theatre spaces that learn from the past, audience hugging the actors, but look to the future in terms of technology. Wonderful theatres, including Glyndebourne, the Singapore Esplanade and countless others across the world have resulted.

A play in action
Angels in America at the Lyttelton Theatre. Image: Philip Carter.

It also led to him devoting the last eight years of his life (he passed away at the end of 2023, age 90) to researching and writing A Sense of Theatre, seeking to explain how the National Theatre building came to be the way it is, but also celebrating the triumphs of the National Theatre Company since that first performance in 1963 — including talking to many people who have worked there over the years. A key realisation was perhaps that while the Olivier and the Lyttelton are challenging spaces, theatremakers often work better responding to the challenge of a space rather than attempting to design a show onto a blank canvas. In other words, the National's building has very much helped define the remarkable shows that the National Theatre has created.

Of course, you can happily not care about any of this, and the National will still be there, welcoming you to enjoy a show or a drink or just hang out in its foyers. But if your curiosity has now been piqued about this remarkable story, A Sense of Theatre provides a unique guide to it all.

A Sense of Theatre: The Untold Story of Britain’s National Theatre by Richard Pilbrow, published by Unicorn Publishing Group

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