The Royal National Theatre in London, or the National Theatre as it’s more familiarly known, was founded in 1976 and it’s become one of the UK’s most prominent publicly-funded arts venues.
- Immerse yourself in the National Theatre’s past and present with a visit to the Lyttelton Lounge’s digital archives and exhibitions
- Perk yourself up at the Foyer Café, which offers amazing coffee, cakes and snacks alongside stunning South Bank views
- Learn more about what goes on behind the scenes with a backstage tour of the theatre
What to see and do
Watch costumes and sets taking shape from the Sherling Backstage Walkway
You can watch the physical parts of productions being designed and created before they hit the stage by taking to the Sherling Backstage Walkway. You’ll be able to look into a production workshop to see scenes being painted, props being put together and sets being constructed.
Take in a free exhibition
The National Theatre always has an exhibition on and they’re all free to enter. If you have time before seeing a performance, or if you simply want to explore the theatre, then you can visit one of the exhibitions; they’re presented in the Lyttelton Lounge and the Wolfson Gallery. Previous exhibitions have included Costume at the National Theatre and Playing With Scale: How Designers Use Set Models.
Take the family to a workshop
Head to the Clore Learning Centre on the east side of the theatre and get an insight into the secrets and the special skills that makes a production work. The centre holds family workshops for adults and children that demonstrate how actors have pretend fights onstage, as well as offering people the chance to design a costume and compose some music.
Tour the theatre
The National Theatre offers several different tours – backstage, costume, architecture and shorter, child-friendly family tours (the kids go free). You can also book personalised backstage tours just for two people, or take the Concrete and Cocktails tour which combines exploration of the design and architecture with a refreshing cocktail.
Did you know? (4 Interesting facts)
- The National Theatre comprises three venues – the Olivier Theatre, the Lyttelton Theatre and the Dorfman Theatre (this theatre was known as the Cottesloe until 2013).
- The roof of the theatre is home to around 60,000 bees! The apiary was founded in 2012 as part of an initiative to increase the city’s bee population. Jars of their honey are on sale in the gift shop.
- Prince Charles was not a fan of the brutalist theatre building. In 1988, he described the theatre, designed by architect Denys Lasdun, as a “clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. Despite this, the theatre received Grade II listing in 1994 and is one of London’s most loved buildings.
- The concrete walls of the theatre, both inside and outside, still bear the imprints of the wooden planks used to form the moulds into which the liquid concrete was poured and left to set.
- 1949: The National Theatre Bill passed through Parliament, but several years of indecision about the theatre site followed, stalling progress.
- 1951: The Queen Mother laid a foundation stone next to the Festival Hall, but it was moved repeatedly and the royal joked that the stone should have been on casters.
- 1962: The Old Vic Theatre became the temporary home to the National Theatre. Work on the final site started in 1969.
- 1976: The National Theatre opened on March 16 of this year and the first production – in the Lyttelton – was Peter Hall’s Hamlet with Albert Finney as the Danish Prince.
- 1979: Industrial action over the pay and work shifts of backstage staff halted productions in all three theatres and cost the National Theatre around £250,000 in lost ticket revenue.
- 1988: The Queen gave her permission for the theatre to add “Royal” to its title, although it’s still usually known as simply the “National Theatre”.
- 1997: Six of the seven possible Evening Standard Awards go to the National Theatre, including Best Actor for Ian Holm in King Lear and Best Musical for Lady in the Dark.
- 2003: The NT’s first-ever opera; Jerry Springer – The Opera, debuted, bringing a different type of audience altogether into the theatre.
- 2008: The Olivier’s first-ever original play by a living female playwright, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s “Her Naked Skin”, debuted in July.
- 2013: The Cottesloe Theatre was renamed the Dorfman Theatre after Lloyd Dorfman made a donation towards the NT’s £70 million redevelopment project which ran from 2012-2013.
Facilities and accessibility
The National Theatre is accessible throughout, including ramps into each of the three venues. Entrances have wide swing doors and there are also lifts to the different levels and terraces.
There are accessible toilets in the Understudy bar, the Kitchen cafe and in the main building – staff members will be happy to help you find your way.
There are relaxed performances for theatre fans who might prefer a more informal and relaxed environment, such as people with autism spectrum, sensory or communication issues.
People with either visual or hearing impairments can make use of large-print or Braille cast-lists, hearing loops, and audio head-sets, as well as captioned or audio-described performances.
Assistance dogs are welcome throughout the theatre, including the auditoriums.
The nearest tube stations are Waterloo (Northern, Bakerloo and Jubilee lines), Southwark (Jubilee Line) and Embankment (Northern, Bakerloo, District and Circle lines). You’ll need to walk over Hungerford Bridge from Embankment to the theatre.