Experiencing the National
by Jami Rogers
The Royal National Theatre, part of an enormous concrete arts complex, sits on the River Thames in a part of London known as the South Bank. It is made up of the Royal Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Royal National Theatre (or the National, as it is more commonly called). When you enter the building, the impression of its architecture as monolith completely changes -- it is no longer an eyesore, but a place to relax.
The National itself consists of three theatres: the largest auditorium is the Olivier Theatre, based on the old Greek model with a stage that juts out into the audience in a semi-circle; the middle auditorium is the Lyttleton, a traditional "proscenium arch" theatre (so named because the arch to the front of the stage frames the action like a painting). The third and smallest performance space is called the Cottesloe. The National's production of The Merchant of Venice originated here.
Live music plays each evening in the Lyttelton foyer, on the ground floor near the main entrance. Unless you've checked the music schedule ahead of time, the type of music you'll hear -- anything from jazz to classical -- will be a complete surprise. This brings a unique ambience to the National. The building also houses a variety of bars, coffee shops, and restaurants at all price ranges, making the National a popular meeting place, even if a trip to the theatre isn't scheduled. Sitting at a table overlooking the Thames, with St. Paul's Cathedral a bit downstream on the opposite bank, drinking a cup of tea (or any other beverage for that matter) and soaking up the atmosphere is an experience without rival.
The Cottesloe Theatre is separated from the main foyers and in order to reach it a patron must go around the building to a separate side entrance. It has its own foyer (alas, without the live music), bar, and bookshop. The Cottesloe seats approximately 250 people. It has a flexible stage and seating plan, which can change with every production. For The Merchant of Venice, the stage thrust itself out into the audience. Merchant was sold out for its run at the Cottesloe; on evenings when the show was in repertory, a line of people snaked through the small foyer and out onto the pavement, everyone hoping a ticket would miraculously become available.
When the lights go down before the performance there is expectation in the air. And when the play is good, there is also a delightful rapport between audience and actors, each feeding off the energy of the other. Every performance is different -- while the basic structure remains the same, the nuances change. Actors keep discovering what makes their characters human and their performances continue to evolve. It is the freshness of live theatre which enchants an audience.
Happily, a viewer of the television production of Merchant is not deprived of the subtlety of the piece, where each character's actions and reactions to the events around them illuminate the whole. The television viewer doesn't miss the tour de force that is Henry Goodman's interpretation of Shylock, with his fierce rendition of the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. That moment captures the built-up frustration that Shylock feels at the daily persecution he suffers.
In the theatre, of course, the experience is different: there is a direct physical connection with other human beings both on the stage and those watching the play in the audience, and when the play is good and you have connected with it, you leave the theatre having shared an experience with your fellow theatregoers, however ephemeral. But, because of the medium of television, those unable to see The Merchant of Venice onstage are still able to share in that riveting experience.
Jami Rogers received her training as a Shakespearean actress at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She has performed at the MacOwan Theatre in London, written a play performed by Boston Theatre Works, and has worked for Masterpiece Theatre and MYSTERY! since 1997.
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