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Shedding a tear…

May 25, 2016

In the programme for the abominable mess that is Suhayla El-Bushra’s “The Suicide,” the National Theatre notes that the play was encouraged for its large “Lyttleton” auditorium because most female writers preferred to write for “The Shed” (or “Temporary Theatre,” as it ended its days last week).

They suggested that women were ‘afraid’ of bigger spaces… I’d suggest that apart from the patronising cobblers inherent in that remark – it is far more the case that the Shed really was the best place for emotional expression, and female writers intuitively knew it. Hence their wanting to work there; the intimate “Table” being a perfect opening production, “Blurred Lines” one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve seen.

It really was difficult for me to say farewell to this auditorium. No other at the National felt the same. Sure, the Dorfman is supposed to take over the role – but it isn’t an equal space.

You can’t sit in symmetrical form in a square around the playing area of the Dorfman. If you configure the Pit area, it still leaves two galleries towering above, rather than feeling like a closed box with a far lower (but not claustrophobically so) roof. The Shed had seats right up to the stage on all four sides if need be, and every downstairs seat was close and near eye-level with the cast.

It ‘felt’ different, too. Informal, with the casual excitement of a fringe venue. The acting was looser, the cast feeding off the audience energy, even if the play was weak (‘Hotel,’ sorry, but it was). The Dorfman’s more formal stage loses that.

A quick glance at the figures the National published about the place confirmed my own feedback that it was easily the most popular and accessible venue they’ve ever had. Over 90% of tickets were sold, 34% to under 25s – compared to the usual 21%. Suggests that well-priced seats and friendly environment are all that is required, I’d say? Wonder how the numbers will rack up at the replacement Dorfman, where £20 doesn’t go quite so far…

While I’m well aware that the loss of (word-play intended) cash-cow “War Horse,” the reduction in grants and a weak return on some plays have all left the National shorter of cash than it was; I can’t help wondering at the end of the little red building we all loved from the start.

Programming it seemed easy, the work was regarded highly, tickets sold, everyone wanted to go there / work there. And it’s over. Far be it from me to suggest that it was in some way an embarrassment to those “higher up” at the theatre, to have an incredibly generous and wonderful person, Mr Dorfman, give amazing amounts of money to them… only to find his namesake theatre upstaged by a wooden cube. I’m certain that wasn’t the case. BUT, surely, there was a very strong artistic reason for keeping both for so long as the walls would stand the London climate? Theatre is about using spaces to do new things, and when you find a wonderful space that can help do that – there has to be a duty to use the tool until it wears out.

Anyway, thanks, National Theatre for the Shed. It was wonderful while it lasted, and may its dear timbers now rot in peace.




Taking a break next week, back the week after.

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