I’ll begin by saying that I LOVE going backstage at theatres. The few times I have done, I’ve been amazed by the winding corridors and seemingly maze-like routes behind and below the stage, as well as by the sheer quantity of space and rooms and goings on behind the scenes to make shows happen. So when I discovered that the National Theatre offers backstage tours most days, I seized the opportunity to buy tickets for myself and my boyfriend (the excuse being it was a birthday treat for him, but I knew we would enjoy it equally… but it was mostly for him. Honest).
We (and the other 18 people) were introduced to our tour guide Maya, who was so knowledgeable, engaging, and generally brilliant. We were given fetching orange high vis jackets to wear which was fun, and gave me a false sense of importance despite the fact that they said ‘National Theatre Backstage Tours’ on the back. Maya told us all a bit about the history of the building and when and why it was built – it’s much newer than I thought, with the building being opened in the 60s (despite the concept of a national theatre being in talks as early as the 19th century).
We entered one of the three auditoriums within the building: The Lyttelton Theatre. I was immediately struck by how modern the space is, but also by its simplicity. Maya explained that the whole idea of this particular theatre is to not let anything draw the audience’s eyes away from the action on stage, explaining the plain decor and the black box around the performance space. This theatre holds nearly 900 people, and it felt like such a nice intimate space from within the stalls.
Next we went into the main auditorium: The Olivier Theatre. Walking into the circle of this theatre was amazing – the view of the stage seemed to be perfect from every angle, and this is because the seating curves around the stage, somewhat hugging it, and the angle is exactly that of humans’ peripheral vision, meaning that the actors on stage can always see everyone in the audience. This space is where Follies was performed, and Macbeth is in technical rehearsals there right now. Sitting in the circle and looking down at the stage made me desperately want to see a show there!
We reluctantly left The Olivier, and went backstage! We got to see several props from past productions, some of which never even made it on stage due to script and design changes. We also saw the carpentry workshop where many set pieces and props are made, and had a peek into some other workshops too. The National Theatre is a producing theatre, meaning that many sets and props are made backstage, which can be hugely beneficial when shows are rehearsing within the building, as things can be changed very quickly as the shows develop. It’s much like Theatre Royal Plymouth and TR2 in that sense, but on a much bigger scale!
We were taken back to the foyer and handed back our orange jackets, and said a big thank you to Maya (who was brilliant!). We discovered that there is a great theatre shop in the building, which I wish I’d found before because we spent at least an hour in there!
The backstage tour at the National Theatre was awesome, and I would recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in theatre. I learnt so much and now really want to see something in any one of the three theatres. I think it’s so great that a big producing theatre such as the National offers tours such as this, as it definitely sparked my love for theatre even more.