Your complete guide to the National Theatre in London

London’s premier theatrical institution has been producing work since 1963, with some of the biggest worldwide hits coming from the historic venue.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The Royal National Theatre, or the National Theatre as it’s usually known, is the UK’s flagship venue - and a theatre with a stellar international reputation, too. Situated on London’s South Bank, the theatre is home to bold new writing and celebrated revivals, to plays, musicals, and family shows, and to everything from full-blown epics to intimate two-handers across its multiple playing spaces.

The building is also an impressive space for audiences and artists alike to gather before and after taking in a show. From its intimate Understudy Bar to its thriving River Stage Festival in the summer to a robust bookshop, there’s so much to do and see at the National Theatre.

Find out more about this landmark venue and its current shows in our handy guide to the National Theatre.

The founding of the National Theatre

The founding of the National Theatre was the result of decades of campaigning. London publisher Effingham Wilson first proposed a national theatre back in 1848, and other prominent figures soon supported the notion — including author Charles Dickens, critic and poet Matthew Arnold, and actor Charles Kemble.

Impresario Harley Granville Barker and critic William Archer set out detailed plans for the theatre in 1903, but the project kept stalling, with politicians debating whether or not it was worth funding, and the interruption of two world wars.

Finally, the National Theatre Company was founded in 1963 under artistic director Laurence Olivier. His illustrious debut company included the likes of Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and Lynn Redgrave. They initially performed at London’s Old Vic theatre until construction was finally completed on the new National Theatre building in 1977.

What are the theatre spaces in the National Theatre building?

One of the reasons why the National Theatre is always the place to be is that it can host multiple impressive productions at once across its different spaces. Here’s a look at the spaces in the National Theatre.

Olivier Theatre - LT - 750

The Olivier Theatre

The biggest and most prestigious is the Olivier Theatre (named after Laurence Olivier), which can seat 1,150 people. It’s fan-shaped, creating a wonderful feeling of connection to the performers even with such a vast audience, and its steep rake means great sight-lines throughout the auditorium. This is where you find the big-cast productions.

Lyttelton Theatre - 750 - LT

The Lyttelton Theatre

The National’s second-largest space is the Lyttelton Theatre (named for the NT’s first board chairman, Oliver Lyttelton). This is a more conventional proscenium arch configuration, with 890 seats, but is likewise well designed for maximum audience engagement. For example, unlike some older West End houses, there’s no issues with pillars blocking your view.

Dorfman Theatre - 750 - LT

The Dorfman Theatre

The National also has the Dorfman Theatre, which you access from a side entrance to the building. This was originally the Cottesloe (after Lord Cottesloe), but was renamed for philanthropist Lloyd Dorfman, chairman of Travelex Group, in 2014. It’s the smallest space, at 400-450 seats, but the most excitingly flexible. Shows can be staged front on, in traverse or in the round, with seats in the pit raised, lowered or folded away as required.

Famous National Theatre’s productions

The National Theatre Company began in style with Laurence Olivier’s production of Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole. Since then, the NT has produced more than 800 shows under its successive artistic directors: Olivier, followed by Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn, Nicholas Hytner, and, currently, Rufus Norris.

Landmark productions include: Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain, Judi Dench in Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, Ian McKellen in Richard III, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Hugh Jackman in Nunn’s Oklahoma!, His Dark Materials, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, War Horse, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller in Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies, The Lehman Trilogy, Brendan Cowell and Erin Doherty in The Crucible, and Samira Wiley in Blues for an Alabama Sky.

Current National Theatre productions

That amazing run continues with the National Theatre’s current offerings. Ardal O'Hanlon stars in Dancing at Lughnasa in the Olivier. Over in the Lyttelton, Janet McAteer stars in Phaedra. And in the Dorfman, Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy lead Romeo and Julie.

Upcoming National Theatre productions

There’s plenty more to come, too, including Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton in The Motive and the Cue, Clean Break's Dixons and Daughters, and a Gareth Southgate-inspired play Dear England.

The National Theatre’s River Stage Festival

As if that wasn’t enough, the National also hosts a summer festival outside on the South Bank. Over several weekends, there are takeovers from exciting companies and regional venues, like The Glory, James Cousins Company, Shubbak Festival, and Hackney Empire’s Young Producers — think dance, drag and comedy as well as drama. Add in street food stalls and bars, and it’s a real party atmosphere, plus another fun addition to the NT’s artistic offering. Find out more about the National Theatre River Stage Festival.

Food and drink at the National Theatre

Of course, there’s also plenty of great dining options within the theatre too. You’ll find seasonal British produce at restaurant House — with a very reasonable fixed-price menu — plus coffee, tea, and tasty snacks at the Atrium Cafe and Espresso Bar.

But most exciting is the National Theatre’s new partnership with independent street food pioneers KERB. They’re curating a diverse network of food and drink offerings across the NT’s spaces — plus there are summery treats from independent traders in the open-air market next to the building. From lobster rolls and burgers to craft beer and cocktails, it’s a foodie paradise.

National Theatre Live

Experience a National Theatre play without even stepping foot in a theatre, thanks to National Theatre Live. See unmissable theatre filmed live from Britain's stages, including the three National Theatre stages and West End venues across London.

Many West End productions are filmed and eventually streamed as part of the National Theatre Live to encourage nationwide audiences to see the latest plays. Upcoming National Theatre Live plays include streamings of Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer, The Seagull starring Emilia Clarke, and Much Ado About Nothing starring Katherine Parkinson and John Heffernan. Whether you saw the show in person, or you want to catch up on the productions you missed, see incredible theatre thanks to National Theatre Live.

National Theatre at Home

In 2020, the pandemic shut all theatres, meaning there were no live performances. At the start of the pandemic, the National Theatre streamed one show a week on its Youtube channel. By the end of 2020, over 15 million people watched a free theatre stream.

To continue this success, the National Theatre launched National Theatre at Home, an in-house streaming service where you can watch groundbreaking National Theatre plays on demand. There's dozens of plays and musicals available to watch on National Theatre at Home, with new shows added regularly. Here's all the National Theatre at Home shows you can watch now.

The National Theatre Bookshop

It’s worth dropping into the National even if you’re not seeing a show purely to browse its magnificent shop. You’ll find every play text imaginable here, plus books dedicated to the study and craft of theatre, as well as loads of fun theatre-related merchandise — think mugs, stationery, tea towels, posters, jewellery, children’s toys, books and games, and loads more. It’s particularly handy when you’re hunting for gifts for your stagey friends.

Tour the National Theatre

Take a 75-minute guided tour if you want to really get to know this amazing building. You’ll get to see not just the public spaces, but all of the NT’s incredible craft areas, like its carpentry and prop-making.

The building also has a dedicated New Work department, collaborating with upcoming artists and writers on bold ideas, and pushing the boundaries of theatre with pioneering multimedia and digital projects, including dramas using virtual reality.

But the real joy of the National is that it’s an inviting space 24/7. You can sit in its spacious lobby or at one of the long tables by the bar and read a book, catch up with friends, or even get some work done. There are free exhibitions, fantastic talks and discussion panels, and a general sense of creativity and community. There’s always something going on here, both in and surrounding the theatre spaces, and you always feel welcome to be a part of it.

Interested in attending a show at the National Theatre? Find out more about the National Theatre, and book tickets to a show at the National Theatre.

Photo credit: National Theatre (Photo courtesy of National Theatre)

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