No Longer Brutal, Just Beautiful

Christopher Fowler
If you've ever been hypnotised, you'll know that you're told to imagine a place where you feel calm and safe and happy. I would pick London's South Bank complex, home of the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall. This is what was written about the formation of a national theatre in 1904 by William Archer and Harley Granville Barker. 'The National Theatre must be its own advertisement — must impose itself on public notice, not by posters or column advertisements in the newspapers, but by the very fact of its ample, dignified and liberal existence. It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London. It must not ever have the air of appealing to a specially literate and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community… It will be seen that the Theatre we propose would be a National Theatre in this sense, that it would be from the first conditionally — and, in the event of success, would become absolutely — the property of the nation.' Well, it took a while to find its place but I think the complex fulfils this brief admirably (even though the Hayward Gallery still has awkward access). There's something wonderfully friendly and inviting about main building. Long considered nothing more than a collection of cubist concrete boxes, it was much reviled for most of its existence. I'm very glad they cancelled compromising plans to hide it under a glass dome, because the space has truly become one of London's most beloved spots. It's more worn-in now, cluttered with mess and people with laptops and tea and wine and displays and books. This is part of their costume exhibition from recent plays. There are actually four theatres here. The largest is the Olivier, named after its first artistic director.
This is the main auditorium, modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus (a fashionable thing to build 40 years ago). It has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for 1100 people. The sightlines are fantastic. This is
great for audiences, but according to director Trevor Nunn, difficult for actors and directors to adequately fill. Noting goes to waste. The forecourt is used for open-air performances, the terraces and foyers are used for ad hoc experimental events. The decor changes, with recent displays of 'outside wallpaper', sculptures, giant chairs and bits of furniture. Everything except the theatre interiors are open to the ticketless public, with a large theatre bookshop, arthouse film theatres, restaurants, bars and exhibition spaces. The success of the place can be judged by looking at its common areas - every square foot is taken up with somebody doing something, young and old. I like heading from the north side of Waterloo Bridge to the south and seeing it gradually appear. In a London eclectically filled with Victorian buildings and shiny glass sticks, it's surprisingly unique. The terraces have been remodelled, making the place welcoming even on a freezing winter night (I took this two nights ago). People talk about the building being unsympathetic, but what's unsympathetic are the mirrored towers along the riverside with nothing to offer those on the outside. The NT provides open decks like those of a ship and can feel oddly maritime, welcoming all and luring you inside. The opposite of a frosty cultural temple, it has become a destination for everyone.


Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Fri, 14/02/2020 - 10:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Kinks had it right when they said Waterloo sunset's fine.

Richard (not verified) Fri, 14/02/2020 - 15:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I sang in the Festival Hall when I was a kid! Which was generous of them, as I couldn't sing even then. I agree, it's s a nice place to be on a summer's day.

Jan (not verified) Fri, 14/02/2020 - 17:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I can never see this place without remembering all the homeless kids in the underground spaces nearby. Dunno if many youngsters are still there or not. I expect so. Consequently I sort of view it through a different prism really. Nullifies your calm happy view a bit.

Saying that in its way in all its grand concreteness the South Bank complex is almost as much of a period piece as the Savoy Theatre or the Old Vic and as much of an antique in its own 1960s way.

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 14/02/2020 - 20:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I walked through a homeless man's "bedroom" going from our civic theatre down to our car one night forty years ago. That doesn't destroy my pleasure in the theatre. (I was at eye level with him and we had a quick wordless apology/not to worry exchange that I've never forgotten.)

Jan (not verified) Sat, 15/02/2020 - 08:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Trust me Helen not really a similar experience at all.

John Howard (not verified) Sat, 15/02/2020 - 09:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Spot on commentary. I love it as an an entity. It only becomes ugly if it is neglected in my mind.

Brian Evans (not verified) Sat, 15/02/2020 - 15:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This place has changed beyond recognition over the years. For the better. Since the Festival of Britain left the site in 1951, it took years before anyone knew what to do with the area. Those lovely 1950's railings were put there to give the place a seaside front promenade feel, but nothing else happened. Despite the NFT and Festival Theatre etc, nothing happened to bring the "prom" alive-as in "café society" It was a complete soulless dump, made worse by Thatcher's legacy of her "There's no such thing as society" quip. It became a dystopia, as the creature threw the weakness in society onto the streets into "cardboard city" No other major city in the world would have had a terrific waterside area then left it empty and sterile. Not even virtually 3rd world Portugal who made a fabulous place out of their Lisbon river area.

Then eventually things changed for the better, starting by the painting and softening of the ghastly post-modern monstrosity of concrete buildings. It is now a really nice looking and vibrant place.

Brian Evans (not verified) Sat, 15/02/2020 - 15:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

..threw the weakest, not the weakness!