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The Ultimate Guide to London’s National Theatre

18 September 2019 by Marianka Swain
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The Royal National Theatre (most commonly known as the National Theatre, or even just the National) is one of the UK’s leading theatres, and an important London landmark. Here’s everything you need to know about this amazing riverside venue.

Sir Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company began life in 1963, but was based at the Old Vic theatre nearby while construction of the new National Theatre took place. The building was finally opened by The Queen in 1976.

The National has three permanent theatre spaces: the 1,150-seater Olivier, with its famous drum revolve; the 890-capacity Lyttelton, featuring a more traditional proscenium arch design; and the flexible 400-seater Dorfman, which can be configured in the round, thrust or end-on, depending on the show.

Housing a trio of different spaces, catering to everything from epic to intimate productions, classical drama to ground-breaking new work, is one of the reasons why the National is such a thrilling theatre.

Landmark work
The National Theatre’s numerous influential and/or award-winning productions include “War Horse,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” “One Man, Two Guvnors,” “Amadeus,” “Angels in America,” “Arcadia,” “The History Boys,” and, most recently, “The Lehman Trilogy.

It’s also home to outstanding productions of Shakespeare and other canonical writers, plus creative versions of musicals – from Sondheim’s “Follies” to a Hugh Jackman-led “Oklahoma!“.

The New Work department supports artistic development and fosters exciting experimentation, while the Public Acts initiative brings together theatre and local community groups – with inspiring results.

Many of the National’s shows have subsequently gone into the West End or transferred to Broadway. Recent Tony winners include “Hadestown,” “Angels in America” and Bryan Cranston in “Network.”

NT Live
The National’s reach extends well beyond its building – not only through transfers and co-productions, but also via broadcasts to cinemas nationwide and abroad.

National Theatre Live (or NT Live) began in 2009 with a broadcast of “Phèdre,” starring Helen Mirren, and now goes out to 2,500 venues across 65 territories. If you can’t make it to a show or aren’t based in the UK, NT Live is a fantastic alternative.

Coming up
With over 20 new productions created every year, there’s always something new to look forward to. Upcoming highlights include: a major revival of Athol Fugard’s Apartheid-era “‘Master Harold’…and the boys”; “My Brilliant Friend,” the two-part theatrical adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan novels; Pulitzer-winner Annie Baker’s latest “The Antipodes”; a stage version of Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”; and Simon Woods’s political play “Hansard”, starring Olivier winners Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings.

The National is a welcoming venue, and a great place to visit even outside of the shows. Its bookshop has an incredible collection of plays and other theatrical texts, plus great gifts and show-themed souvenirs. There are interesting free exhibitions, and the comfy chairs scattered around its open spaces make a it great place to lounge, read, work or meet people.

Food and drink wise, there’s the excellent House and Terrace restaurants/bars; coffee and snacks at the Espresso Bar; or sandwiches, cakes and well-priced hot food at the Foyer café, which also has riverside seating. It even has its own craft beer pub, The Understudy, which is a great place for a bit and a beer before or after a show.

The National is located on the South Bank, in a cultural hub that also includes the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, BFI Southbank, and the Hayward Gallery. When the weather is fine, this is a beautiful spot for strolling along the river and taking in spectacular city vistas – plus there’s outdoor entertainment like the Underbelly Festival and the National’s own River Stage festival.

Getting there
By Tube or train, it’s a quick walk from Waterloo station. You can also get there easily via north bank stations like Embankment, Temple, Blackfriars, Monument, Bank, or St Paul’s, and then walking over the Millennium or Waterloo Bridges – with the bonus of jaw-dropping London skyline views on either side.

There are bike racks outside the National’s Espresso Bar, and also opposite the Dorfman Theatre, plus docking stations for the Santander Cycle Hire on Upper Ground and Concert Hall Approach.

Numerous buses cross Waterloo Bridge or stop at the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge. There’s also a car park in the National’s basement, accessed from Upper Ground, and three electric vehicle fast charge points on the south side of the cark park.

Bonus tip
It well worth your time to book a tour of the National. Exploring the backstage areas and creative departments will give you a sense of the pioneering, dedicated teamwork that goes into their productions, plus you can learn more about the architecture of this special building.

The Sherling Backstage Walkway (accessed from the gallery level of the Dorfman foyer) also allows you a sneak peek of productions being created before they reach the stage – from set construction to scenic painting and prop-making.