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
MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad