The National Theatre has put on some of the UK’s most highly regarded and talked about productions since it opened with a version of Hamlet directed by Laurence Olivier and starring Peter O’Toole in 1963. Many of these featured brilliantly designed posters created in-house by a succession of art directors and designers in its Graphic Design Studio, and the best have been collected for an exhibition at the theatre and an accompanying book published by Unit Editions.
The exhibition has been curated by Design Observer co-founder and lecturer Rick Poyner, who says that “an exciting theatre poster manages to capture the essence of a play. It grabs your attention with something surprising and draws you in. The National Theatre has a long tradition of producing adventurous poster designs that encapsulate the inventiveness and energy of its productions.”
“The NT’s first graphic designer, Ken Briggs, collaborated closely with the theatre for a decade. That set the pattern and the theatre went on to appoint a succession of designers – Richard Bird, Michael Mayhew, Charlotte Wilkinson and Ollie Winser – who have worked in-house on the posters and other graphics. Each designer has maintained a very high standard of creativity and the posters’ graphic styles have evolved to reflect the changing needs of the theatre and its audiences.”
Image: Poster for the 1970 production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler by the Graphic Design Studio under Ken Briggs. The production was directed by Ingmar Bergman and starred Maggie Smith as Hedda.
The National Theatre left its first home at the Old Vic in 1977 to move to its current South Bank location, a squat brutalist concrete hulk that’s often unkindly compared to a multi-storey carpark – though at night bright, flat pastel lighting on some vertical surfaces gives it an almost cyberpunk feel.
Image: Poster for Shakespeare's Richard III in 1979 by Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew.
The exhibition will feature a series of talks including a tour of the exhibition by Rick and a separate talk on the history of poster design, a presentation by the current Graphic Design Studio and a showing of the full-length typography documentary Helvetica.
Image: Poster for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, which was performed for the first time in 1983 at the National Theatre. The design and illustration was by Richard Bird, incorporating photography by Conroy-Hargrave
In its last season, the National Theatre gave over 2,500 performances of 26 productions to over 1.4 million people in its auditoriums and a further 400,000 in cinemas around the UK through its NT Live programme.
Image: Poster for Peter Handke's wordless one-act play The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, which was produced in a new translation at the NT in 2008. The poster was designed by Michael Mayhew using photography by Stephen Cummiskey.
2014's production of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste Of Honey starred Lesley Sharp. The poster was designed by Charlotte Wilkinson, using photography by Phil Fisk.
This poster for the 2016 production of Alexander Zeldin's play Love was designed by the Graphic Design Studio. Photography by David Stewart.