Lofty ambition

The National Theatre has been reconfigured for Transformation, a season of experimental work. So, wonders Paul Taylor, is this new space the key to the institution's future?
Click to follow

Five years ago, during his first press conference as artistic director of the National Theatre, Trevor Nunn lamented the fact that this three-auditoria flagship lacked – as a complement to the vast Olivier arena, the proscenium-arch Lyttelton and the studio-sized Cottesloe – a fourth, flexible, 100-seater space, built along the lines of the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs, where the National could put on experimental work designed to appeal to a public younger than its greying mailing-list.

At a recent meeting of journalists, Nunn recalled that occasion. He could well afford to, because this press gathering had been summoned to herald the opening of just such a rule-breaking mini theatre – the new Loft, whose inception coincides with a major reconfiguration of the Lyttelton itself. This theatre is generally regarded as the least satisfactory of the National's auditoria. As deficient in audience-embracing curvature as an old-fashioned cinema, it's a rigid, rectilinear venue that also fails to unify the punters in the stalls with those in the circle. It tends to offer two distinct and qualitatively invidious experiences.

That architectural handicap has been corrected – not permanently, but for a five-month season that opens tonight and is appropriately entitled Transformation. Programmed by Mick Gordon, the young director who was an inspirational impresario at Notting Hill's tiny Gate Theatre, thefestival will present eight new plays in the Loft (from writers-on-the-rise such as Roy Williams, Tanika Gupta and Richard Bean), with the revamped Lyttelton fielding five pieces of what Gordon calls "made" work. These are theatrical events that will either dispense with pre-existing text (as in Play Without Words, a piece devised by choreographer Matthew Bourne and designer Lez Brotherston), or test themselves against an apparently resistant non-theatrical text (as in the stage reinvention of Jeanette Winterson's cyberspace novel The PowerBook by Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw), or bring text-based and non-text-based theatre into anarchic collision (Kathryn Hunter unleashing Mamaloucos Circus on Aristophanes' The Birds).

It is seven years since Deborah Warner last worked at the National Theatre. Since then she has preferred to make theatre in non-theatrical spaces (such as the defunct St Pancras hotel, where she sent the audience on ghostly solo walkabouts); or in opera houses; or in France. So it says a lot for the perceived artistic potential of the new-look Lyttelton that the National has now managed to entice her back. Of the reconfiguration – which, at the loss of 200 seats, unites the stalls and circle in a more intimate single rake – Warner says simply, "It at last creates the theatre that Denys Lasdun [the architect of the National] should have designed and didn't."

Declaring that "good theatre producing is almost dead in this country", she welcomes the National's new initiative. To cynics who perceive it as a salvaging exercise for Trevor Nunn – too little, too late near the end of a regime recognised more for big-budget musicals than for cutting-edge new drama – Warner stresses that the project has been more than two and half years in the planning. Now in her forties, this director continues to be an inspiration to young theatre practitioners and is noted for attracting youthful audiences with anti-institutional events, such as her extraordinary 20-minute production of Beckett's Footfalls. This mocked the moribund conventions of West End theatre-going by transforming the Garrick Theatre with white sheets and bare light bulbs and sending Fiona Shaw on a vertiginous shuffle across a plank stationed under the dress circle.

So Warner's presence will be a powerful magnet – alongside other inducements such as the promised DJs, the opening till midnight of the Terrace Café and substantially reduced seat prices. For people under 25, all Loft tickets will be £8 and £10 for the Lyttelton (even cheaper – £6 – if they book for three previews at once). This compares with a normal £10-£30 price range in the Lyttelton and £10-£27 in the Cottesloe. But what of the objection that the National may awaken a youthful appetite it won't be able to satisfy once this five-month festival is over?

"Well, I believe all theatre should have the excitement of a festival, which is why I'm not running an institution," she counters, also pointing out that, without bigger subsidy or sponsorship, the National could not sustain a set-up that sacrificed 200 Lyttelton seats. Like Mick Gordon, she would rather concentrate on how this season might act as a blueprint for future development. "This is a history moment," declares Gordon, "with the National trying out different working processes in order to become a facilitator of a different kind of 'made' theatre." The National Theatre Studio is the institution's ongoing research laboratory (many of the writers in the Loft season were nurtured there), but its work is open-ended and not put to the test of a paying audience. The Transformation season seems like an enlivening attempt to import more of the studio's ideals into the main building.

For Warner, this working environment is liberating, because the whole season is offering itself to the public in a spirit of creative enquiry and ground-testing (a fact she hopes won't be lost on critics), and because the end result of this current stage of development of the piece will have a short run of just three and a half weeks. "We could so fall out of the sky with this, and in a way I don't mind because I can pick it up later," she says. By this she means that The PowerBook is a co-production with the Théâtre National de Chaillot, where it will be worked on further in eight month's time. She points to the Canadian genius Robert Lepage, whose stage pieces, such as the masterly Seven Streams of the River Ota, mature draft by draft, over time and in various co-productions, with seed-bed support from his native Quebec. Of her strategy with The PowerBook, Warner comments wryly, "It's a question of whether it's an abuse of the National Theatre or whether [providing a protective and enabling environment for risk] it's precisely what the National Theatre should be doing."

The construction cost of the Transformation season is £1.2m. The creation of the Loft was supported with £400,000 from the Royal National Theatre Foundation, a charitable endowment with independent trustees, part of whose remit is education and audience development. The Arts Council also increased the NT's grant this year by £1m to help nurture audiences and reduce seat prices. But the enterprise is still very costly, and Warner feels that the public should know that it is being subsidised by the artists themselves: "We are being paid half of what we would normally get."

Because there are agreed minimum rates for writers, the dramatists in the Loft season are being paid the same fee as they would get for a piece in the Cottesloe. But there are reports of discontent from dramatists who had been promised Cottesloe productions (with larger audiences and longer runs) and now find themselves corralled in the tighter pen of Transformation. Referring to length of time a couple of the plays have been doing the rounds, one director told me he was reminded of "the mouldy bits at the back of the fridge". There's also an aura of worthiness about the selection: a black writer; an Indian writer; an Irish writer... The National is indeed lucky if the best plays at the moment just happen to fall into this representative spread. On paper, the new Lyttelton looks more exciting.

Time will tell. The reconstruction has been designed as a kit that can be stored and used again. Nicholas Hytner, who takes over the top job at the National next year, declared at his first press conference that new writing would be at the heart of his regime. Will he unpack the kit? Will the Transformation season, seen as a feasibility study, inform his approach? The brochure tries to link the pieces with little running slogans – "On Love", "On Purpose", "On Fire" etc. In one honourable sense, the slogan for the entire festival and its philosophy could be "On Approval".

Transformation begins tonight with Roy Williams' 'Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads' in the Loft (020-7452 3000)