In the UK, the National Theatre is a government subsidised institution that puts on plays around the country. Their main base is the National Theatre on the South Bank of the river Thames, London. Large amounts of their funding from the government goes to the up keep of this building which is one issue that they have been criticised on. People say that they should be putting more money into plays rather than on the building (they often are mean to the government due to grants that they deem small).

Currently they get £11,167,000 as a grant from the Arts Council. They also get about 11% of their total income as sponsorship money and patronage (about £3,346,640). The total amount of income (including the above and the money they make from the box office, drinks and food, souvenirs etc.) is about £30,424,000.

There are three theatres in the main building: the Olivier (after the first Director), The Lyttelton (after the first chairman) and the Cottesloe (named after the chairman of the South Bank Board, who were in charge of the building of the National Theatre).

The current director of the National Theatre is Nick Hytner. Before that was Trevor Nunn (1997-2003). Before that was Richard Eyre (1988-1997) and before him was Peter Hall (1973-1988). The first director was Laurence Olivier.

The National Theatre makes it possible for those with financial difficulties to still be able to see decent plays.

General Facts

They have, in total, carried out 500 plays with several going on per week.
The most plays in one day has been 18 (see the history section).
They have won many awards over many years with the most being 25 in 1999.
People working at the National Theatres (as administration staff) are civil servants.
Carries out musicals as well as plays.
The first play to be carried out by the company was Hamlet directed by Laurence Olivier and Peter O'Toole played Hamlet (1963).
For 13 years the company spent its time in the Old Vic Theatre while it waited for its building to be finished.
The first tour of the National Theatre was Laurence Olivier's production of Uncle Vanya in 1964 which then became the first foriegn tour as well when it went to Moscow soon afterwards.


1848 The idea was first conceived by Effingham Wilson (a London Publisher)

1903 Harley Granville Barker and William Archer publish detailed plans for National Theatre. There had been some attempts at one before this but they had failed pretty miserably.

1937 A site is chosen and bought in Cromwell Gardens but due to the outbreak of World War II the building was not built.

1942 The London County Council agrees to allow the site to be exchanged for the one on the South Bank of the Thames. This is where the present building now stands.

1949 The National Theatre Bill is passed through Parliament (without a division). This allows the government to give a grant to the National of up to £1 million for the building and equipment.

1962 Govenors of the Old Vic theatre allow it to be used by the National Theatre for (initially) five years.

1963 Denys Lasden was chosen as the chief architect for the new building. He was also the architect for the IBM building in London as well.

1973 Peter Hall takes over as Director of the National Theatre.

1976 The Lyttelton theatre is opened first (out of the three theatres in the new building) with an opening production of Hamlet (played by Albert Finney).
The Olivier theatre opens on the 4th October of the same year with Marlowe's Tamburlaine The Great (directed by Peter Hall). The Queen officially opens the National on the 25th October

1977 4th March: the Cottesloe theatre is finally opened with Illuminatus! by Ken Campbell (an eight hour epic!). All the theatres in the National are now open. Still some building work was needed and some of the machines didn't work. These delays in the building lost the company money.

1982 The National sends out its first production from its Education department, Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It goes to different centres.

1984 The National's Studio is founded to encourage new writing. This workshop is still in use today.

1985 The closure of the Cottesloe theatre due to cuts in the Arts Council Grant. The last production is Doomsday (the final part of Bill Brydon's production of The Mysteries).

In the autumn, the Cottesloe reopens thanks to a private grant from the Greater London Council

1987 22 awards attained by the National Theatre for work over the past year. This is a new record for the company.

1988 Richard Eyre takes over as director.
To mark the 25th birthday of the National, the Queen gives the National Theatre the new prefix of Royal. From now on it can call itself The Royal National Theatre.(' What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.' -- Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet).

1990 11% increase in the subsidy of the National Theatre.

1992 24 awards recieved for the years work.

1993 Saturday 18th October, a record of 18 performances in one day at the National Theatre.

1997 In October the current director of the National (Trevor Nunn) succeeds Richard Eyre.

1998 The National Theatre Online sees its first foray into the world wide web. (see it at

1999 The National Theatre wins 25 awards.

As webtoe mentions, there are three actual theatres in the National Theatre complex on the South Bank, together with a huge shared foyer.

The Olivier Theatre

The Olivier is the largest of the three theatres in the building. It seats 1150 people in two tiers, shaped like a fan around the stage. The stage is therefore essentially round, although often it's used as a conventional stage.

What's most impressive about the theatre though is the machinery under the stage.

  • Imagine a tall cylinder, sitting with its flat end on the ground.
  • Cut it in half across the middle, horizontally.
  • Cut it in half again down from top to bottom. You now have four equal semi-cylinders, two on the bottom and two on top.
  • Take one of them away.

Now imagine that the whole contraption can be rotated round either at once, or just the top half or bottom half, and also that where there's a missing quarter, the piece above or below it can be raised or lowered into the gap. And all these rotations take place almost silently.

This is how the machinery works. Each of the three semi-cylinders contains a set (they are hollow so can represent the inside of a house). You're looking at one of these pieces. It rotates round, revealing the piece of scenery behind it. Then, while the play is going on, the first piece of scenery is lowered into the gap beneath it. The lower half rotates round, and a third piece is lifted behind what you're looking at. The top half then rotates, revealing the third piece. This allows for seamless changes of set during a play. Due to the layout of the audience, all these changes are 1) invisible and 2) inaudible to the audience. The entire mechanism can also be lowered under the stage to provide a flat surface.

The entire unit is about 60 feet high and the cylinder cross section is about 25 feet in diameter. It's also been notoriously unreliable, sometimes breaking down mid-performance, leaving the actors to apologise to the audience and sort out refunds.

The Lyttleton Theatre

The Lyttleton is a conventional proscenium arch theatre seating about 890 people with no restricted seats. Due to its modern design, it can be made into an open-end stage and an orchestra pit can be added for up to 20 musicians.

No seat is further away from the actor's point of command than the distance from the front row of the dress circle in many older, larger theatres.

The Cottesloe Theater

The Cottesloe isn't a conventional theatre, but more of a flexible workshop often used for experimental and new plays.

It's a basic room which has seats on two levels around three sides. If being used for a conventional play, a proscenium can be created at one end, and with the addition of seats on the floor, it has a capacity of 300. Alternatively, plays can be staged the round.

The Foyers

The complex also has a huge number of foyers. These contain the traditional bars and restaurants, but also a number of spaces for things such as piano recitals, performance art and exhibitions. These are usually free.

TenMinJoe says The Olivier Theatre is the only place I've ever seen the *stage itself* get a round of applause before there were even any actors on it. That thing is incredible.. I've never quite seen that happen, but it is damn impressive!

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