London may be jam-packed with theatres, but it hasn’t had a purpose-built one since Denys Lasdun’s monolithic National Theatre opened on the South Bank back in 1976.
All that is about to change with the arrival of a brand new £15m theatre in Swiss Cottage by architect Bennetts Associates, replacing the poky, broken down prefab that had been home to Hampstead Theatre for the past 40 years.
With its sleek glass-and-brick exterior, spacious, light-filled public areas and state-of-the-art auditorium, it’s as if the managers of Hampstead Theatre have traded in their clapped-out Ford Escort for a Daimler Sovereign.
Invited to take a sneak preview a couple of weeks back I found myself surrounded by an odd assortment of builders, electricians, painters, caterers, theatre admin people and a couple of long-suffering box office staff trying to take bookings for the opening show, How To Behave, amid the mayhem all around.
The most notable interior design feature is a colossal zinc drum that rises up from the basement level, penetrates all three floors and pokes out through the roof. At first glance it resembles the stern of a battleship, but actually it turns out to be the back of the auditorium.
If it sounds oppressive it’s not. Everything about Rab Bennetts’ design, from the slatted beechwood in the auditorium to the pillars of coloured light that change hue before your very eyes, is geared to making you feel relaxed and pleased to be there.
The 325-seat elliptical auditorium was modelled on Peter Brook’s Bouffe du Nord Theatre in Paris, and a Georgian theatre in Bury St Edmunds. Cleverly Bennetts has managed to retain the intimacy of the old space while more than doubling the seating capacity. Unlike many larger theatres, it seems like the perfect space in which to present drama that touches each individual member of the audience.
Whether their controversial opening show manages to achieve that goal, or even aspires to, remains to be seen.
How To Behave is the work of the avant garde company Station House Opera (nothing to do with opera, apparently) whose past productions include re-enacting the construction of Salisbury Cathedral, playing real-life snakes and ladders at a fire station in Bow, and being suspended underneath New York’s Brooklyn Bridge.
Its show for Hampstead, intended to show off the new building, is part promenade, part performance art. Audience members will be issued with audio headsets and taken on an unpredictable guided tour of the theatre, followed by a more structured entertainment on stage.
The seven performers not only interact with video, but are being recorded live. At any moment the images on screen could change from pre-recorded action to live action.
‘It’s about being in two minds,’ explains director Julian Maynard Smith, a lugubrious gent in his 50s. ‘The idea is to give the audience an alternative view to what they are seeing on stage.’
Despite Hampstead’s reputation for producing new drama, Maynard Smith insists he has been given carte blanche to make of the commission what he will, without being inhibited by what ‘the play-reading audience is going to think.’
He says rehearsals have been extremely difficult because ‘this has been the most chaotic place we’ve ever worked in.’
When I ask if it might not have a better idea to produce something a bit simpler and more accessible to inaugurate the new theatre, he replies with a wry smile, ‘Actually it would have been nice to do something a bit more complicated.’
How To Behave is playing at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Road, London NW3 from 15 February. Contact the box office on 020 7722 9301