National Theatre Posters

National Theatre

 A graphic design history 1963 to 2017 

The National Theatre occupies a special place in the history and evolution of the poster in Britain. Since its creation in 1963 the NT has used posters to promote and give visual expression to the enormous range of productions that it stages.

Across more than five decades, the posters have been the responsibility of just five individuals: Ken Briggs, Richard Bird, Michael Mayhew, Charlotte Wilkinson, and Ollie Winser, the current creative director of the Graphic Design Studio.More than 1,700 posters have been produced in this time. The designers have taken a great variety of approaches and there are notable distinctions between their bodies of work. These variations reflect individual personality and skills, the fashions of the period and changing ideas about the most effective way to communicate graphically with audiences.

The posters are both a history of design at the NT and a case study of the way the poster as a medium has evolved in Britain over the last half-century.

Ken Briggs: The Typographer
1963–1974

The graphic identity and system that Ken Briggs (1931–2013) developed for the theatre’s printed material is striking for its consistency. Briggs, who studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, was influenced by a rigorous style of modern typography developed in Switzerland in the 1950s. An invisible grid underpinned Swiss designs and formed the structure on which the type and pictures could hang. Briggs used a contemporary looking sans serif typeface, Helvetica, which became fundamental to the theatre’s identity.

Posters were often put together overnight at Briggs’ home, if he received the copy at the last minute. For all the type, he used Letraset, an inexpensive dry transfer lettering system, where every letter is carefully rubbed down by hand. ‘In theory, [Director of the NT] Laurence Olivier and [administrative director] Stephen Arlen had to clear all the designs, but they were so busy and, as they seemed to like whatever I did, everything went through on the nod.’

As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Director: Clifford Williams
Theatre: Old Vic
Poster design: Ken Briggs
Photograph: Zoë Dominic
1967

The imagery Briggs selected for this series of standardised posters was invariably photographic. The pictures show scenes from the production’s rehearsals. They encapsulate the play’s mood and show what the performers and sometimes the stage sets look like, but they do not attempt to express the play’s essence through a visual interpretation, as later NT posters would do.

Edward II
by Bertolt Brecht (after Christopher Marlowe)
Director: Frank Dunlop
Theatre: Old Vic
Poster design: Ken Briggs
Photograph: Douglas H Jeffery (V&A Image Library)
1968

To maximise the impact of the theatre’s name and the play’s title in posters displayed on the London Underground, Briggs organised the type to form a heavy diagonal structure. When several posters were mounted side by side the type looked even more dynamic.

Saint Joan
by Bernard Shaw
Director: John Dexter
Theatre: Old Vic
Poster design: Ken Briggs
1963

Briggs found the photograph of Joan Plowright in the role of Joan of Arc in a newspaper and enlarged it to fill the poster. His design for the theatre’s second-ever production impressed Laurence Olivier – Plowright’s husband – and won him the job as the theatre’s graphic designer.

Hedda Gabler
by Henrik Ibsen
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Theatre: Old Vic
Poster design: Ken Briggs & Associates
1970

This is an unforgettable close-up of Maggie Smith in a legendary production of Hedda Gabler. Briggs adapted his earlier poster format, which was usually based on a black background, replacing it with an overwhelming solid red.

Equus
by Peter Shaffer
Director: John Dexter
Theatre: Old Vic
Poster design: Moura-George/Briggs
Art: Gilbert Lesser
1973

Gilbert Lesser’s artwork is a compelling departure from the photographs of actors in performance that had dominated the earlier posters. The horse’s highly stylised head is both powerfully expressionistic and geometrically precise, while the theatre’s name is once again reduced to a small patch of type at the top.

Coriolanus
by William Shakespeare
Directors: Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert
Theatre: Old Vic
Poster design: Ken Briggs
1971

In the early 1970s, Briggs abandoned his reliance on predetermined formats and began to treat each design as a fresh challenge. Where the early posters expressed the theatre’s identity through consistent typography, the later posters placed more emphasis on the play.

Richard Bird: The Image-Maker
1975–1986

As in-house head of graphics, Richard Bird (1943–1993) took the posters in a more expressive direction. He had planned to be a painter, before discovering graphic design as a student at Brighton College of Art. Bird was a gifted illustrator and lettering artist who could deliver a variety of visual styles, as a poster required.
‘A theatre poster packages the play,’ said Bird in 1984. ‘It gives it an identity. It has got to function. You have got to be able to read it across the street and the title must be a large element. Even the typeface must be in character with the overall image.’
Every poster is an exuberant graphic interpretation of the play’s world. Many borrow period details to evoke the time the play was written, or the place where it is set. Bird adapted existing imagery from the history of art and illustration with confidence and panache.

Bedroom Farce
by Alan Ayckbourn
Directors: Alan Ayckbourn and Peter Hall
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew
Photograph: Michael Mayhew
1977

Bedroom Farce takes place in three bedrooms in the course of a night and the following morning. The poster is startlingly direct in showing an unmade suburban bed. The pink is farcical in its garishness and the ‘fashionable’ period lettering of the title-piece is perfectly calculated to jar with the faintly ominous image.

Volpone
by Ben Jonson
Director: Peter Hall
Theatre: Olivier
Poster design: Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew
1977

The image of the fox, which symbolises a crafty Venetian gentleman in the play, comes from an illuminated manuscript held by Cambridge University Library. John Goodwin, then the NT’s head of publications, found the picture in T H White’s translation of The Book of Beasts (1954). The source image was reproduced in the Volpone programme with a quotation from the book.

Tamburlaine the Great
by Christopher Marlowe
Director: Peter Hall
Theatre: Olivier
Poster design: Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew
1976

The NT logo, designed by Ian Dennis of HDA International, the studio of F H K Henrion, was introduced in 1976 with the theatre’s move to its new building on the South Bank. It would appear on the posters for 36 years. The cast lists were a potentially awkward feature which had to be fitted seamlessly into the design, as here.

The Wild Duck
by Henrik Ibsen
Director: Christopher Morahan
Theatre: Olivier
Poster design: Richard Bird
1979

Bird’s typographic title-pieces, meticulously crafted to harmonise with the images, have the emphatic presence of elaborately drawn logos. In his poster for The Wild Duck, the swashes on the initial letters of each close-fitting line of the title counterpoint the wings of the duck in flight.

Richard III
by William Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Morahan
Theatre: Olivier
Poster design: Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew
1979

This interpretation shows Bird at the height of his powers. The poster is direct to the point of bluntness, while being highly sophisticated in its construction. The photograph of John Wood as Richard, twisted into the corner, combines with the almost abstract outline of his cloak/pool of blood. Bird’s lettering is executed with his customary panache.

Glengarry Glen Ross
by David Mamet
Director: Bill Bryden
Theatre: Cottesloe
Poster design and illustration: Richard Bird
Photograph: Conroy-Hargrave
1983

David Mamet’s play about a group of real estate agents prepared to do anything to make a sale had its world premiere at the National Theatre. Bird represents the men’s working lives with a briefcase full of unreliable promises, smoothly combining photography with punchy stencil lettering and his own illustration.

True West
by Sam Shepard
Director: John Schlesinger
Theatre: Cottesloe
Poster design and illustration: Richard Bird
1981

In True West two estranged brothers, who envy each other’s lives, meet again in Southern California. At first glance, Bird’s surreal illustration seems to show a single featureless cowboy. Then we see that the face has a double outline, as though two figures have merged into one – an image both romantic and oblique.

Michael Mayhew: The Photographer
1976–2009

With Michael Mayhew (b 1947), the emphasis moved from illustration to photography as the primary way of generating imagery. As a largely self-trained designer and a keen photographer, Mayhew was completely at ease with the medium. He had the visual skills of a magazine picture editor, cropping and masking photos as the design required. ‘I always think I can make a poster out of any picture you hand me.’
Until the mid-1990s, Mayhew treated each poster as a fresh problem requiring its own concept, as Bird had done. This changed with the arrival in 2003 of Nicholas Hytner. The new director wanted a consistent house style to project a contemporary message: 'sharp-edged, brisk and witty'. Mayhew read the plays and devised his own visual interpretations. He used black-and-white pictures, often from stock photo libraries, and in a salute to Briggs went back to using Helvetica for the play titles. Bright colours gave the words immediacy and impact.

For the West
by Michael Hastings
Director: Nicholas Wright
Theatre: Cottesloe
Poster design: Michael Mayhew
1977

In For the West Rudolph Walker played the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Mayhew uses a grainy shot of the actor in movement to urgent effect. Slanted typewriter lettering – a typeface called Courier – adds to the sense that anything could happen in the company of this menacing and unpredictable figure.

Bent
by Martin Sherman
Director: Sean Mathias
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Michael Mayhew
Photograph: Gordon Rainsford
1990

Bent portrays the persecution of gay people in Nazi Germany. Mayhew’s close crop of a photograph of Ian McKellen conveys a disturbing mixture of anguish and anger. For the background image, he used a detail from Großstadt (1928) by the German expressionist Otto Dix to suggest a society oblivious to gay suffering.

The White Devil
by John Webster
Director: Philip Prowse
Theatre: Olivier
Poster design: Michael Mayhew
Photograph: Gideon Hart
1991

Mayhew’s poster for Webster’s revenge tragedy once again hinges on a figure in a state of extreme duress. By eliminating background detail, he focuses attention on Josette Simon’s strained pose. The melodrama of the bloodstain is offset by the formality and restraint of the type pushed over to the edge.

Harper Regan
by Simon Stephens
Director: Marianne Elliott
Theatre: Cottesloe
Poster design: Michael Mayhew
Photograph: Kevin Cummins
2008

This is a portrait of Lesley Sharp, playing a mother who leaves work and family to visit her dying father. Shot in a pub like a documentary photo, the picture is tense with feeling. Mayhew positions the normally tidy lines of Helvetica type at an angle, underscoring the character’s emotional agitation.

Paul
by Howard Brenton
Director: Howard Davies
Theatre: Cottesloe
Poster design and photograph: Michael Mayhew
2005

Mayhew applied one of his starkest and most enigmatic images to this modern retelling of Saul’s divine revelation on the road to Damascus. The picture was inspired by the stone and ray of light in Larry Towell’s photograph, Gaza City (1993). Posters like this benefit greatly from the decision in 2003 to drop the cast list.

the hour we knew nothing of each other
by Peter Handke
Director: James MacDonald
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Michael Mayhew
Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey
2008

In Handke’s wordless drama, 27 actors played more than 450 characters endlessly moving back and forth across a town square. The photograph by Stephen Cummiskey, a designer in Mayhew’s team, reduces this human parade to two pairs of walking legs, though the shadows make it seem like more. By avoiding obvious drama, the poster seeks to intrigue and draw in the viewer.

. . . some trace of her
adapted by Katie Mitchell and the Company
(inspired by The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Director: Katie Mitchell
Theatre: Cottesloe
Poster design: Michael Mayhew
Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey
2008

This adaptation of a great Russian novel incorporated live filming and projection and the poster reflects these unconventional techniques. With the director’s encouragement, the image splits actor Hattie Morahan’s face in two. After trying out many positions for the title, Mayhew reinforced the unstable feeling with steeply angled type.

Charlotte Wilkinson: The Art Director
2004–2014

Charlotte Wilkinson (b 1980) took over as creative director and head of graphics in 2009 after a period as Mayhew’s assistant. Wilkinson studied both graphic design and art direction at Manchester Metropolitan University. She art directed and constructed her own images for the posters, making the poster image as expressive as possible. ‘I’m trying to transport the viewer to a time, a place and an emotion… to how they might feel sitting in the audience.’ To this end, she devised images in a range of styles, sometimes based on photoshoots with the plays’ actors and sometimes using her own illustrations.
Wilkinson continued to work with Helvetica, now re-established as central to the theatre’s identity, though she stopped using the brightly coloured text favoured by Mayhew. In 2012, the ‘NT’ logo was replaced on posters with ‘National Theatre’. It was set in Helvetica and now maintained a fixed position in the top left-hand corner.

Season’s Greetings
by Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Marianne Elliott
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Charlotte Wilkinson
Photograph: Phil Fisk
2010

In Ayckbourn’s black farce a family argue bitterly at Christmas. Wilkinson’s poster marks a shift from using existing photographs to art directing original images. Phil Fisk’s beautifully lit picture, shot on location at a house in Wimbledon, shows the actors – among them Mark Gatiss and Catherine Tate – caught in a slump between arguments.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Simon Stephens
(adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon)
Director: Marianne Elliott
Theatre: Cottesloe
Poster design and illustration: Charlotte Wilkinson
2012

Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone has an extraordinary flare for maths, but struggles to interpret everyday life. Wilkinson focuses on the moment when he discovers a neighbour’s dead dog (the ‘curious incident’). The collage and the title-piece are jerky and unsettling and the boy’s raw outline conveys his sense of apartness.

A Small Family Business
by Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Adam Penford
Theatre: Olivier
Poster design: Charlotte Wilkinson
Photograph: Phil Fisk
2014

The poster announces the revival of a play written during the ‘greed is good’ years of the 1980s. The new boss of a family furniture firm – played by Nigel Lindsay – promises honesty in business without realising that his whole family is on the take. The dark hues and litter of banknotes capture the mood of cynicism and disillusion.

The Veil
by Conor McPherson
Director: Conor McPherson
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Charlotte Wilkinson
Photograph: Dean Rogers
2011

McPherson’s supernatural drama is set in a country house during the Irish famine of the 1820s. Hannah, after witnessing a family tragedy, develops an unsettling connection to the spirit world. Wilkinson’s art direction recalls the paintings of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, where solitary women in bare interiors turn their backs to the viewer.

A Taste of Honey
by Shelagh Delaney
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Charlotte Wilkinson
Photographs: Phil Fisk
2014

Wilkinson’s poster for Delaney’s classic about northern working-class life is constructed digitally from portraits of Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn, as mother and daughter. The plan was to photograph the actors on location in Manchester, but Sharp’s schedule did not permit this and the image had to be blended digitally from pictures by Phil Fisk shot in a cobblestone street in London. Wilkinson researched old photos of streets and corner shops with adverts and then she and Fist spent a day driving around Manchester looking for similar locations that could be made to resemble the 1950s in the final image.

The Silver Tassie
by Sean O’Casey
Director: Howard Davies
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Charlotte Wilkinson
Photograph: Jillian Edelstein
2014

O’Casey’s anti-war play, written in the late 1920s, is renowned for its unsparing and unsentimental treatment of the First World War. Ronan Raftery played the soldier Harry Heegan, and Edelstein’s gritty portrait depicts him as a character whose initial optimism will be crushed by his experience of the horrors of war.

Graphic Design Studio: The Brand-Builders
2014 to present

The graphic design studio’s most recent creative director, Ollie Winser (b 1972), takes a different view of the posters to his predecessors. While Winser manages every aspect of graphic design for the theatre, posters are collectively attributed to the Graphic Design Studio. He is not the sole or even necessarily the lead designer, because this now goes to any one of a team of designers.
Branding has become increasingly important for the theatre. Winser is clear about the vital role of visual communication in a competitive entertainment and media landscape. ‘I don’t think there’s anyone in the team that’s under the illusion that we produce fine art that is somehow devoid of that marketing need,’ says Winser. The most notable change in Winser’s first two years was the move away from Helvetica for play-titles. The aim is to push forward the individuality of shows, while ensuring the prominence of the NT brand.

Rules for Living
by Sam Holcroft
Director: Marianne Elliott
Theatre: Dorfman (formerly Cottesloe)
Poster design: Graphic Design Studio
Illustration: Tobatron (Toby Leigh)
2015

In this comedy about a family crisis, boards above the stage display rules governing the characters’ behaviour as the play unfolds – for instance, ‘Matthew must sit to tell a lie’. Playfully deadpan drawings by Toby Leigh represent some of these actions using the simplified outline style seen on safety instruction cards in aeroplanes.

The Red Lion
by Patrick Marber
Director: Ian Rickson
Theatre: Dorfman
Poster design: Graphic Design Studio
2015

The Red Lion is set in the dressing room of a non-league football club hoping for promotion. A talented young player with a troubled background joins the club, and this might have been handled in a naturalistic style on the poster. Instead, the moment is made monumental as he stands on the threshold of an experience that will change him.

wonder.land
by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini & Rufus Norris
(inspired by the novels of Lewis Carroll)
Director: Rufus Norris
Theatre: Olivier (and Palace Theatre, Manchester, as part of Manchester International Festival)
Poster design and illustration: Graphic Design Studio
2015

wonder.land show how the poster image at the heart of a campaign might be required to function today. In the production Aly enters an online game through an app, represented by a cat’s face. The designers devised a feline icon based on Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, famous for its mischievous grin. Both personable and slightly menacing, the head floats in a formless space signifying the digital realm.

The image could be simplified to become a T-shirt graphic, or shrunk down to make an app for smartphones that enabled users to create their own avatar. The device was so successful as a representation of the show that the production designers decided to incorporate it as a graphic feature on the floor of the stage. While the need for a central campaign image to promote National Theatre plays is as strong as ever, the poster concept, as we once understood it, no longer has a fixed edge.

The Deep Blue Sea
by Terrence Rattigan
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Graphic Design Studio
Photograph: Dean Rogers
2016

Helen McCrory’s impassioned performance as Hester Collyer was highly praised and the poster puts the character centre stage, in complete control of her sexuality. The widely spaced letters in the title-piece, no longer restricted to Helvetica, address the image with great delicacy, drifting across the couple.

LOVE
by Alexander Zeldin
Director: Alexander Zeldin
Theatre: Dorfman
Poster design: Graphic Design Studio
Photograph: David Stewart
2016

Zeldin’s drama explores the plight of people living in temporary accommodation, through careful observation. The poster adopts the same strategy of restraint. The mother’s room was built in a studio, allowing total control of the image, and is lit like a classical painting. The picture has a haunting dignity.

Angels in America
by Tony Kushner
Director: Marianne Elliott
Theatre: Lyttelton
Poster design: Graphic Design Studio
Photograph: Ryan Hopkinson
Studio set design: Andrew Stellitano
2017

Angels in America is a complex two-part examination of AIDS, homosexuality and capitalism in the USA in the 1980s. Some characters are angels and ghosts. In an atmospheric interpretation of the play’s supernatural and epic scope, the title is made three-dimensional in burning neon and this becomes the centrepiece, hovering above a broken world.

Credits: Story

Curator — Rick Poynor
Graphic Design — Emilie Chen
Digital Drawing — Tom Atkinson and Alan Bain
Video Production — Emma Reidy
Digital Design — Dan Batters
Archive — Jennie Borzykh, Pawel Jaskulski and Erin Lee
Exhibitions Team — Perri Blakelock, Róisín Devine and Judith Merritt

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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