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.”