Stroll across Waterloo Bridge in the warm spring sunshine and you can’t help but notice a large red box dominating what used to be the courtyard outside the National Theatre.
Sitting like a rouge Trojan present outside the unmistakable, iconic frontage of the National Theatre, The Shed screams out for attention and forces you to ask “What on earth it that?”
The answer is the new temporary theatre that last week officially became the NT’s third space while the Cottesloe theatre is closed as part of the NT Future building plan, to re-open as the Dorfman theatre next year.
It represents, says NT Associate Director Ben Power, who is in charge of programming the striking venue, “a real opportunity for the National to encourage risk for its artists and for its audiences. This space is about new forms of theatre, new kinds of performance, new voices coming here for the first time and engaging with the National and our audiences, and it’s about audiences who have never been here before, who go to galleries and gigs and other kinds of live art performance in London but who don’t come here, engaging with the National.”
That’s quite some remit for a structure the lifespan of which will be like a mayfly to the National’s tortoise, stretching to months rather than years. Yet the programming, which we are gradually learning more and more about, hints at a very different collection of productions than you might have expected to see at the Cottesloe.
“We talked to National Theatre Associates,” Power explains, “and asked ‘What would you do if instead of the normal Olivier theatre budget and set you had something smaller and rougher? Is there a risk you want to take, an experiment you want to make?” The opening show, Table, is the result of just one such question posed to director Rufus Norris, who had been working on the project, which follows a family for more than a century through actions around and on one special piece of furniture, with writer Tanya Ronder.
Christmas sees War Horse co-director Marianne Elliott try to tell The Elephantom, a children’s tale about paranormal pachyderms – “They’re in the studio at the moment working with inflatables. God knows what’s going to happen” says Power – alongside another NT director Polly Findlay working with playwright Tim Price on a piece about the Occupy movement.
In between the National’s own risk takers, Power has programmed names new to the Southbank venue. Magical tale Bullet Catch, which uses illusion to explore its story of loneliness, solitude and identity, follows Table into the building. It is a production, like the others, that animates Power, who previously saw it in Edinburgh and described the experience as “as excited a room as I’ve experienced in a theatre”.
Debbie Tucker Green, described by Power as “one of the most distinctive, vital and original voices in British theatre,” but one who until now was more likely to be seen at the Royal Court or Soho theatre, brings her new play, nut, to the National theatre for the first time.
So what is it exactly about this temporary crimson construction that has caught the imagination? When I get to peek inside, it feels reminiscent of spaces like the Tricycle, the Young Vic, the Donmar and the Cottesloe itself. Metal bars and bare walls are exposed and, while I look around, ladders are left leaning, paint pots sit patiently waiting for a brush and the only sound I can hear, despite sitting almost underneath Waterloo Bridge, is the hammering of the workmen. This is not the sort of space where you will find luxurious seating and red velvet; it feels raw and available, functional and shell-like, waiting to be filled.
“There was never a brief for the Shed,” explains Steve Tompkins, Director of architects Haworth Tompkins, which, in addition to creating The Shed is also working on the NT Future redevelopment. “There was just a conversation.” In contrast to the drawn out backwards and forwards of other projects, The Shed grew out of discussion, with NT Director Nicholas Hytner and with Associates they knew would be involved. It continues to evolve now as productions’ designers meet to talk.
The ethos of the build has been to look forward at theatre design, at what can be achieved quickly and with a keen eye on sustainability. The towers at each corner of the building that, during the summer, provide a red reflection of the purple legs reaching skywards from the upturned cow of the Udderbelly on the opposite side of Waterloo Bridge, help to draw air up through the theatre to provide natural ventilation, and though it is unlikely that at the end of its Thames-side tenure The Shed will be transplanted wholesale, it has been built with recyclability in mind and could well serve as a blueprint for other theatrical endeavours moving forward.
Its design, like its programming, is both intrinsically part of the National theatre and revolutionary for the venue; aiming to tempt new customers in and offer a surprising delight for regulars. Words like “porousness” slip from the mouths of both Power and Tompkins as they talk about the osmotic movement of audiences between Shed and Lyttelton foyers, which adjoin at the front of the building, along with snippets about opening the National up and making it more inviting.
The Shed, says Tompkins, is part of “bringing new energy, new ideas of how a performance can happen and how theatre buildings work” to the National Theatre. Though it will hold performances for less than a year, its legacy could last for decades.
"This space is about new forms of theatre, new kinds of performance, new voices coming here for the first time."