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National Theatre: Backstage Tour

An image of a prop from 'War Horse' hanging on a wall
An image of a prop from 'War Horse' hanging on a wall

Written by
Xiaowen Rong
Published date
15 December 2018

By Xiaowen Rong (MA Theatre Design, Wimbledon College of Arts)
Post-Grad Community Ambassador

Last Monday, I organized a backstage tour of the National Theatre for a group of fellow postgraduate students. Our journey began from the main entrance, where we met our lovely tour guide. Before our walking tour, he gave us a short background about the National Theatre. From his introduction we knew the National Theatre has produced more than 800 plays since 1963, and it has 20 new productions every year.

In the National Theatre, there are three different theatres, they are Olivier Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, and the Dorfman Theatre. Our first destination is Olivier Theatre. Olivier Theatre has a special mechanical stage, the four elements can be revolved independently. In Olivier Theatre, there are running two shows now, one is Hadestown, another is Antony and Cleopatra. When we arrived the theatre, because it’s not the performance time, there were only two or three staffs in there testing the microphone. And on the stage, that day showed the set of Antony and Cleopatra. Our tour guide told us normally they need 6-7 hours to prepare and change the set design for different shows.

Near the Olivier Theatre, there is a small free exhibition about set design and the Olivier Theatre. There are showing model boxes, storyboards, the information of design steps and scales. Also, there has more information of Olivier Theatre’s history. Personally, I felt it is an interesting exhibition to people who curious about theatre’s work.

An image of a prop from 'Warhorse' hanging on a wall
Puppets from War Horse. Photocredit: Xiaowen Rong

Our second destination was the Lyttelton Theatre, from our tour guide’s introduction, we discovered there are 5 rehearsal rooms in the National Theatre. Four of them are the same size to the three theatres, Dorfman Theatre and Lyttelton Theatre each with one room, Olivier Theatre has another two rooms. The different between Olivier’s two rehearsal rooms are, one of them not only is the same size, but also has buttons to control how the stages’ revolve.

Followed our tour guide, at the backstage we were lucky to see an empty rehearsal room for the Olivier. The backstage of the theatre is like a big maze. We walked across different floors, saw the props studio through the window, and visited the big carpentry workshop. In the corridor, we saw various props being kept there, our tour guide said we can take photos here, and he introduce puppet on the wall, that is a character of War Horse, but hadn’t showed on the staged, it is the horse Joey’s mother.

Behind the theatres, there has a big space for creating, making and storing, countless people are working there. By the way, in the National Theatre, there are some places audiences can travel themselves. One entrance called Sherling Backstage Walkway.

Time past so quick, our backstage tour finished at the same place we began. Thanks for our lovely tour guide and everyone. The backstage tour brings me more than what I wrote. If you are waiting for a play in the National Theatre, I would strongly recommend you go to the small exhibition, or just have a walk along the Sherling Backstage walkway.

Images from backstage at the National Theatre