“ South Bank, SE1 9PX (Waterloo tube, or cross from Temple/ Embankment/Charing Cross). „
The National theatre puts on some great performances all year round. Its a good place to go if you're particularly interested in classical plays as there's almost always some adaptation of an ancient text playing.
I know that many people don't find the National theatre aesthetically pleasing but over time, its grown on me and I can see the charm of the structure despite the inital horror of all the concrete.
It's in a great location on the southbank and as such as a convenient place to meet with people in London. And its not just a place to go if you're a paying theatregoer. The National theatre is often holds talks and there is occasionally free live music near the bar. In addition to this, in the summer months the National theatre puts on a series of free outdoor events where theatre companies develop and showcase their ideas to the public. I have often wondered through or sat in the National theatre's public spaces without paying for anything and I have never been pestered or made to feel like I should buy a drink to be allowed to sit down. All in all its a lovely place to go to see a play in or to shelter from the sudden downpours that London is prone to.
The National Theatre can be found in the generally unpleasant-looking South Bank Centre, which also includes the National Film Theatre and Festival Hall. Its very easy to get to, being right next to Waterloo, served by about five tube lines and at least a dozen bus routes. You could also walk from Embankment (the view downriver from Hungerford bridge is my favourite in London).
The National Theatre was formed in 1963 under the direction of Laurence Olivier. It moved to its current location in 1976. Despite the rather gruesome building, its easily the best theatre in London, and given that its subsidised, is also relatively inexpensive. Ive seen 35 plays at the National over the years, and only one has actually been bad (Antony and Cleopatra with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren), although Ive had a couple of vaguely unsatisfying Classical Greek experiences there too. (Heh heh, that could almost be a euphemism for something rude, couldnt it? Its not, though.)
You get a broad old range of things there, from the classics (Shakespeare, Ibsen et al) to new plays (David Hares anti-Iraq War play Stuff Happens, for instance). They also do more obviously crowd-pleasing work: the last few years have seen great productions of Cole Porters musical Anything Goes and Michael Frayns farce Noises Off. Youll see an astonishing array of actors, from theatrical legends (Schofield, Branagh, various Redgraves) to up-and-coming stars (I saw Doctor-Who-elect David Tennant there last year). On the whole, its likely that anything you see at the National is going to be worthwhile.
Inside the National building are three different theatres. The Olivier is the largest, a huge stage with a (not often used) rotate feature. The Lyttleton is a more traditional proscenium arch affair, and the Cottesloe is a much smaller theatre. Theres usually some kind of live music going on in the foyer, or outside in the summer months, and sometimes they project films onto one of the walls at night. There are also bars and restaurants in the theatre, although I tend to think theyre a bit over-priced, and usually go to the NFT bar next door.
There are several plays on there at any one time, and no one can see all of them. There are two productions on at the moment that I recommend, though.
Theatre of Blood, on in the Lyttleton, is an adaptation of a classic Vincent Price black comedy from 1973. In the film, Price (giving probably his greatest performance) played a disgruntled Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart, who sets out to murder all the critics who have given him bad notices using methods derived from Shakespeares plays. Diana Rigg played Prices daughter, and the cream of British character actors were the hapless critics.
The decision to adapt it for theatre is inspired. Its a co-production between the National and Improbable, some of whose members were responsible for Shock-Headed Peter, perhaps the single most entertaining thing Ive ever seen on stage. Its good to see the National collaborating with slightly less mainstream companies (something that the current artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, encourages). The play simplifies the story slightly, making it take place on one night in a decrepit old theatre. The set is fantastic, a convincing-looking decayed old theatre, the script is generally very funny (although there are perhaps a few too many in-jokes) and most of the cast is superb. Rachel Stirling, Diana Riggs crumpet daughter, is excellent in her mums old role. The only slight disappointment is Jim Broadbent as Lionheart. His comic timing is fine, as youd expect, but his rendition of various Shakespearean lines is a bit too self-consciously bad, and he lacks the sense of wounded dignity that made Vincent Price so brilliant.
But its definitely worth seeing. Its really an excuse for some fantastically contrived and hilariously gruesome murders, and they dont disappoint, each one more spectacular than the last (and theres one that I still for the life of me cant figure out how they did without actually killing the actor). The play also manages to fit in a lengthy diatribe about the state of modern, state-funded theatre (obviously a little tongue-in-cheek given where the play is being performed). Whatever misgivings I have about Broadbent (and its also true that the plays pace flags a little now and again) this is well worth a look its all about the murders, and theyre spectacular (and anyone who hates poodles will come away with a big smile on their face).
Alongside the piss-take Shakespeare of Theatre of Blood, the Olivier is putting on a more traditional version of Henry IV parts one and two. The main attraction here is the cast, specifically the mighty Michael Gambon as Falstaff. The plays, probably my favourite Shakespeares, deal with the troubled reign of King Henry IV as he deals with rebellion and civil war, while his son and heir, Prince Hal, prefers to hang around East London with small-time criminals led by the aged, corpulent alcoholic Falstaff.
I do love these plays. As critics are fond of pointing out, they cover the whole breadth of English society at the time they were written, from aristocratic infighting right the way down to sleazy prostitution. The main problem I have is that I saw an exceptionally good production about 13 years ago at Stratford, and this new version, good though it is, couldnt quite escape the shadow of the older one. The direction, by Nicholas Hytner, is exemplary, exploring the meanings of the play in some interesting ways without ever letting it get bogged down in dreary A-level theorising. The sparse set works surprisingly well, with banners or lanterns lowered from the ceiling used to evoke different locations. The music and sound design in general are excellent. The battle scenes at the end of part one are exciting (especially the duel between Hal and Hotspur), and the comedy surprisingly funny, given how much of it depends on obscure Elizabethan wordplay.
The acting, with one important exception, is excellent. Gambon as Falstaff hits most of the right notes (although weirdly he had a tendency towards incomprehensibility, although this may be down to the less-than-perfect acoustics in the Olivier). Sadly I didnt think he was quite as good as Robert Stephens in the same role all those years ago, and he never really brought out the nastier side of the character (except at the end of part one, where hes seen casually looting corpses on the battlefield). David Bradley is very good as the ageing king, especially in part two when hes dying, consumed by self-pity and uncertainty. David Harewood is a superb Hotspur, the hot-tempered leader of the rebellion, and the only honest man in either play, losing his temper practically every time he opens his mouth. John Wood, a great actor who doesnt seem to do nearly enough work, is highly enjoyable (and slightly camp) as Justice Shallow, the rustic comic relief in part two.
The supporting cast is excellent, especially Adrian Scarborough as the roguish Poins and the doddering old Justice Silence. Naomi Frederick is very good as Hotspurs wife theyre one of the most convincingly in love couples in all of Shakespeare, which makes Hotspurs ultimate fate all the more poignant. The only weak link, sadly, is Matthew Macfadyen as the Prince, arguably the most important role in the plays. He doesnt seem to get to grips with the part, and we never get a sense of his real purpose. Is he, as he claims, ruthlessly using Falstaff for his own ends, or is he having one last madcap fling before he has to become king? We never know, unfortunately. This rather unbalances things, and it also undermines aspects of Gambons and Bradleys performances.
But in spite of the weakness of the Prince, this is still a fine production of a fine pair of plays. There are some stunning moments, with great uses of body language bringing out meanings that the text itself doesnt make explicit. The pause in the Prince and Hotspurs duel, when the exhausted Hotspur obviously realises that hes going to lose but has to carry on anyway stays with me. Or Falstaff, standing in silent supplication, his hand reaching out to the Prince, desperate for assurance after a harmless bit of play-acting in a tavern has gone all sinister (Gambon used the same pose in similar circumstances at the end of Pinters The Caretaker a few years ago).
If youve the stamina for it, Id suggest seeing both plays on the same day (about six hours in all, although you get a long break between the two parts, plus two shorter intervals). Henry IV is on until the end of August (although I suspect all the cheaper seats will have sold out by now). Theatre of Blood is on until late August too, although I wouldnt be surprised if that gets extended or moves to the West End. Tickets go up to about £35, although you may be able to find a special deal somewhere. More information can be found on the Nationals web site: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/
The National Theatre is tremendous. I think that if I were to leave London, its the thing Id miss the most. It doesnt really matter if you see whats on at the moment (and Ive only written about two out of several current productions) if youre a fan of theatre and are in London, theres almost certain to be something on there that will please you.
Okay, I admit that the South Bank is a bit of an eyesore. This is especially true of the concrete hideousness that is the RNT, but inside is one of the best theatre companies in London. The RNT has put on some fantastic plays over the last few years, with many plays by new writers being performed for the first time. The ticket prices are a lot cheaper than the West End. Standby tickets are sold before the performance and students can join a free standby mailing list. There are good views of the stage from most of the seats and plenty of leg room. Lots of interesting platfrom events are held throughout the year, as well as free foyer events. The bookshop is also an excellent source of books about the theatre and performing arts in general. The only problem with the RNT at present is the staff, many of whom seem to be miserable and surly! Check out the RNT's at http://www.nt-online.org/home.html