A Sense of Theatre

Richard Pilbrow
The Society for Theatre Research / Unicorn Publishing Group

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A Sense of Theatre

A Sense of Theatre is one of the heaviest books that you will ever have come across. In part, that is because it is all-encompassing. It is also lovingly produced on top-quality, glossy paper that is a pleasure to touch and read from. This is the kind of coffee table book, filled with gorgeous photos and designs, that might break a coffee table but is also eminently readable.

As its subtitle explains, this is “The Untold Story of Britain’s National Theatre”, acting as a nice complement to Daniel Rosenthal’s The National Theatre Story and Dramatic Exchanges.

It has been written by Richard Pilbrow, “one of the world’s leading theatre design consultants, a theatre, film, and television producer, and author, and a stage lighting designer.” With this unique skillset, he played a crucial part in the creation of the South Bank complex that has thrilled and frustrated visitors and practitioners for almost 50 years.

Sadly, Pilbrow, who clearly put an incredible amount of work into this project, died at the end of last year shortly before publication. As such, it will now act as a glorious memorial to his life and work. Through the auspices of consulting organisation Theatre Projects that he founded in 1957, he effectively became the linchpin between the architects and the NT board through the development process and beyond.

After an introduction from Sir Richard Eyre, the story opens with a century-long history of the quest for a National Theatre, with Harley Granville-Barker one of the leading proponents in the early days along with Bernard Shaw, before things started hotting up after World War II.

The second section contains full minutes of many of the meetings that took place at the National Theatre Building Committee, which Pilbrow joined partway through the process. With Lord Olivier in charge, this committee of the great and the good, including RSC luminaries Peters Hall and Brook, attempted to define the project and then recruit an architect who would achieve their goals.

Views differ on whether the selection of Denys Lasdun hit the target or not. The decision was certainly brave, since he had never designed a theatre and that was apparently one of the strongest reasons for his selection. From there, it was a perpetual battle against the elements, the contractors, the unions and time, the project eventually costing well over 10 times the original estimate and taking many years more than planned. Nothing new there!

Increasingly, there were tensions between an architect who wanted the perfect building and those working in the theatre who wanted something that was practical and manageable. This dichotomy is best summed up by a quote from lighting designer Paule Constable: "I think the relationship between the architect and the theatre maker is so fascinating: so often you're making things that are permanent, and we're making things that aren't, and somehow finding a common ground is extraordinary and frightening."

To convey the ups and downs before and after opening, Pilbrow borrows from the diaries of directors Peter Hall and Richard Eyre. Across the years, he also interviewed dozens of key players—architects, designers of every kind, writers, directors and actors—to build a comprehensive picture of the inception, creation and operation of what is undoubtedly Britain’s top theatre and one fit to compete with almost anywhere else in the world. You will discover that the Olivier may be an untameable beast but is loved by a large cadre of directors, designers and actors, while the Cottesloe / Dorfman is universally lauded.

Even though he was involved in the commissioning process, Pilbrow is not afraid to criticise where things went wrong, especially with regard to the Olivier and Lyttleton Theatres, both of which have major weaknesses in terms of acoustics but also the ways in which they let down audience members who can’t afford or can’t get hold of the best seats in the house.

As a supplement to the story of the National, there are sections on theatre design more widely and interactions between architects and theatre-makers.

A Sense of Theatre is a big book in every sense that shares a lifetime’s wisdom regarding theatre design and could act as a manual for architects, but also anyone seeking to work at the National, identifying best practice at the venue, which will also be of great value for anyone constructing or working in any theatre.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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