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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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