Painting the South Bank red: Celebrating a year of the Shed

Fiona Mountford hails the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre

"I remember being in the Shed foyer in those days when Romeo and Juliet was on in the afternoon and in the evenings there was the Mathew Herbert show and straight after that Andrew Scott would go in and do Sea Wall. Those days [last] July were so packed with different energies and it all felt like new energies into this organisation. It’s been sensational.”

Ben Power smiles and pops a jelly bean into his mouth. It’s been quite a year for the man in charge of programming London’s hippest new cultural space, the 220-seat Shed auditorium at the National Theatre, which opened last April and perches jauntily on the river front like an upside-down red wooden cow. What was meant to be a one-off, one-year project has now been granted a three-year stay of execution, taking it until spring 2017. It’s no wonder that Power, who has overseen 14 shows plus some short-run visiting productions at the Shed, is full of beans, and not just of the jellied variety.

It’s fascinating to hear Power, 32, talk about the genesis of the Shed, a space that has achieved the theatrical holy grail of attracting a “younger, more diverse audience”, as he notes, with a range of shows that are, to a greater or lesser extent, experimental. The £80m NT Future building project, still ongoing, meant that the Cottesloe theatre would be closed while it was transformed into the Dorfman, which left the management with two choices if they wanted a full quota of three working auditoria.

“We could have taken a site somewhere else, like a found space, or moved into a West End theatre. Both of those had strengths and weaknesses. [The found-space audience, inevitably younger] wouldn’t have had to come and engage with the National Theatre building and have that interface with the core National Theatre audience. If we’d gone to the West End, the opposite [an older, more traditional audience] would have happened. So putting it here and confronting the rest of the programme with the reality of the Shed felt really important.”

The principles behind the programming were clear. “We wanted tickets to be cheaper and therefore production budgets to be smaller, for everything to happen a bit quicker, a bit rougher, a bit fringier than we as an organisation are used to,” says Power. The National’s incoming artistic director Rufus Norris was given the task of staging the first show, Table, in what he appealingly describes as the “cool red honesty box”. “Some of the teething problems with the Shed were very simple,” he says, “such as how to pay the busker outside to move further off without setting a gravy-train precedent. In the Shed it became clear that simplicity is the only game in town. They need to be good actors and what they say needs to be worth saying, as it’s pretty unforgiving of thin scripts. In all respects it is a great leveller.” Actress Michaela Coel, who has appeared in three shows at the Shed, agrees. “I talk directly to the audience. You’re looking at people dead in the eye. You can see people look away or yawn.”

The most successful works, according to Power, are those that have been the “Shed-iest” – those that “have an attitude” and were staged quickly in a blur of creative energy, even if they were “to some extent unfinished”. “There’s something about speed and immediacy and risk”, he says firmly. He praises Blurred Lines, Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell’s meditation on contemporary feminism, which “hurtled to the stage” earlier this year.

However the piece that he offers as most representative of what he wanted to achieve is Home, up and coming director Nadia Fall’s devised examination of sheltered housing for at-risk young people in east London, currently enjoying a second run after premiering last summer. Vibrant yet thoughtful, its staging includes a beatboxer. The subject matter, he felt, was spot-on, as was the idea of giving “a National Theatre artist, whose previous show here was [Shaw’s] The Doctor’s Dilemma” the opportunity to spread her creative wings so comprehensively. Fall herself is enthusiastic about her time in the Shed.  “It’s up close and personal, a bit televisual. I’m of the televisual generation so I like that. You have to pare everything back. I turned the piece around very quickly and had it been in a bigger space, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Successful as this past year has been, there is still room for improvement, according to Norris. “Not everything has sparked in there. In some ways it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of it as a space”, he says. What, I ask Power, has he learnt? “Going forward we’ll do slightly less, we’ll allow ourselves some gaps in the programme so that we can be a bit more responsive to things”, he says. “I also think having the Dorfman and the Shed open together [the Dorfman opens in the autumn] will immediately change the nature of the programme: it will allow the Shed to be more itself.”

What he has enjoyed is watching perceived barriers fall. “We can see the old divide between a certain type of classical theatre audience and a certain type of new or experimental work audience being broken down all the time. Something about the proximity of the Shed foyer [which Coel engagingly sums up as “hipster National! Second-hand carpet! Comfy chairs!”] and the Lyttelton foyer feels to me symbolic of a movement between auditoria and genre.”

Power himself is an intriguing proposition. He’s an associate director who doesn’t direct, the South Bank’s very own Minister without Portfolio; he is, in fact, that mysterious creature, the dramaturg. “What I do is try and identify what the lead artist on a project, who is never me, wants the effect on an audience to be,” he says, by way of describing his role.

Such has been his impact at the National that some have gone so far as to label him the Power behind Nicholas Hytner’s throne; intriguing, in this respect, is his citation of Kenneth Tynan as a hero. Tynan, as Laurence Olivier’s literary manager at the National, “totally redefined and re-ignited the repertory. He made it progressive, which was an extraordinary achievement,” he says. All of which sounds uncannily like Power’s achievements with the Shed.

The final word on this exhilarating past year should go to Norris, the man who will have to integrate the Shed into his over-arching vision for the entire complex. “Within the theatre it has been a great gust of fresh air, breathing in through the north wall and carrying a welcome invasion, a new ownership of the NT by a different group of theatre-makers and themes, but most importantly by a simple and very social embrace.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing