The Shed

The National Theatre unveils its new temporary theatre space, designed by architects Haworth Tompkins.

London’s Southbank has been given an injection of colour, thanks to the National Theatre’s new temporary theatre space. The Shed, designed by architects Haworth Tompkins and built in just under a year, is a striking, exciting structure, which heralds the start of a multi-million pound redesign of one of Britain's most iconic cultural institutions.

It is large, red and angular. Four chimneys shoot up from each corner of the timber-clad building, puncturing its grey surroundings, playfully willing you to explore inside. It couldn’t be more dissimilar to The National, whose concrete structure represents a history of British theatre that can seem exclusive. “We wanted The Shed to feel welcoming,” says Steve Tompkins, co-partner of architects Haworth Tompkins. “I love the main building but I’m realistic about its flaws. At the time it was designed, there was nothing to look at on the South Bank, there was no river walk. So as a consequence it’s quite impenetrable from the outside.” Erected in-part to tackle this issue, The Shed will temporarily replace the Cottesloe theatre, which has been demolished as part of the £70million redevelopment programme affecting a huge proportion of the National Theatre. Focusing on re-energising the theatre, The Shed offers the National a chance to experiment with new forms of theatre.

Like the Cottesloe, it is a small studio theatre, seating up to 250 people. Currently set up in a thrust stage format for Tanya Ronder’s play Table - running from 9 April to 18 May - it is an intimate and flexible space, in which two tiers of black seats sit so close to the stage that it will be nigh on impossible for performers to ignore them. “The Shed emboldens the managing team and artists to take risks,” Tompkins adds. “It’s a bit dangerous, a bit edgy. But it’s still accessible.”

While from the outside the building may seem to perch, playfully, teasingly on the edge of its parent theatre, you can only access the space by going through the main building – the two are seamlessly joined. Once inside, it doesn’t feel tacked on. Rather, it works with the original structure, enhancing and exciting the theatre’s ground floor foyers.

The Shed is made almost entirely out from rudimentary materials such as steel, plastic and timber. And Tompkins doesn’t try to disguise them. A long wooden bar stands to the right of the entrance to the space, and wooden benches, tables and stools are scattered around the foyer. It's reminiscent of the Underbelly venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – rugged, but ready to be used and enjoyed.

“We don’t want people to feel manipulated,” says Tompkins. “That’s the worst thing you can you do as an architect. There is a whole generation of people who are positively allergic to being manipulated by design. So there’s an aesthetic of under-designed architecture. Obviously you can’t create something like this without designing it, but you can do it in an open-ended way where people feel comfortable to be themselves.” In this sense, they have triumphed. Almost all of the solid walls are covered with black chalk boards. Instead of plasticated signs, information has been scrawled on walls and doors in white chalk. Casual and unassuming, the interior of The Shed juxtaposes wonderfully with its loud exterior.

The Shed will remain in place until February next year, by which time the Cottesloe will have been renovated, ready to reopen as the Dorfman theatre. In the mean time, it offers the National ample opportunity to experiment with an exciting programme befitting this unique setting.

The Shed, designed by Haworth Tompkins. Photo: Philip Vile
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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood