For fans of the poster, the National Theatre occupies a special place in the history and evolution of the medium in Britain. For more than 50 years, the NT has used posters to promote and give visual expression to the enormous range of productions that it stages – first at its base at the Old Vic, from 1963 to 1976, and then at its purpose-built complex of three theatres on London’s South Bank, from 1976 to the present.
Other major arts organisations also utilise posters, of course, but it would be hard to find in-house relationships with designers as long, continuous and stable as those seen at the NT. Posters are more usually commissioned from external studios and agencies and these frequently change over time. At the NT, a succession of directors – Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn, Nicholas Hytner and Rufus Norris – valued the work of the studio and allowed it to thrive.
For the first decade of the theatre’s life, the posters were the work of Ken Briggs, who also designed programmes and other graphic material. From 1975, when Richard Bird – a superb poster designer, who deserves to be rediscovered – became head of graphics at the theatre, the role moved in-house and there it has remained up to the present. Across more than five decades, the theatre’s posters have been the responsibility of just five individuals: Briggs, Bird, Michael Mayhew (who worked at the NT for 33 years), Charlotte Wilkinson, and Ollie Winser, who became creative director of the Graphic Design Studio in 2014.
Throughout this time, other designers, both internal and external, have contributed, under the direction of the lead designers, and a great variety of graphic approaches have been tried. It’s estimated that more than 1,700 posters, including variations, have been produced. While their style and approach evolves, there have also been periods of great continuity and there are marked distinctions between the bodies of work created under the different designers.
These changes reflect individual temperament and skills, the fashions of the period, and shifting conceptions about the most effective way to communicate graphically with the theatre’s intended 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 in the last half-century.
In light of theatre’s central place in national and international culture, it might seem surprising that theatre posters are not a closely studied aspect of visual communication. As Aileen Reid, author of one rare survey notes, ‘the literature on theatre posters is scanty’. Theatre posters sometimes feature in general books about the poster, such as Max Gallo’s The Poster in History and John Barnicoat’s Posters: A Concise History, but they tend not to be considered as a distinct type and the emphasis in any case falls on early examples.
The reason perhaps lies in the ephemeral nature of many theatre posters. By contrast, film posters record a film’s release at many locations, rather than a specific production seen at a single site, and the potential audience for a film is consequently vastly bigger than the audience for even the most successful of theatre productions.
Nevertheless, classic plays, like classic films, have a public life and popularity beyond the circumstances of a particular production. The NT keeps copies of its posters in an in-house archive and it treats them as a part of its legacy with potentially enduring appeal. Reprints of hundreds of posters, dating back to the 1960s, can be bought from its online shop. Since 2009, National Theatre Live has made films of some plays available for live viewing to audiences in cinemas in the UK and around the world, so the old distinction between a film shown at multiple locations and a play often seen at a sole location is becoming increasingly less clear-cut, at least for the NT.
In the 21st century, the poster may seem a highly anachronistic form of communication, long since supplanted by television, the advertising billboard and now digital media. The flimsy paper rectangle’s demise has been predicted for almost as long as the NT has been producing posters. ‘The poster, as it has been understood for three-quarters of a century, is unlikely to survive,’ notes Maurice Rickards, an expert in all forms of ephemera, in The Rise and Fall of the Poster (1971). Thirty-five years later, in the similarly titled Street Talk: The Rise and Fall of the Poster, Angharad Lewis writes: ‘“A dead medium” is the phrase I have encountered most when talking to designers about posters.’
Yet her book’s prognosis is not at all gloomy: people still love posters and designers love making them. In a foreword, Massimo Vignelli argues that while electronic media has ‘largely decreased the relevance’ of printed media, the poster still possesses an unbeatable simplicity and efficiency in the transmission of information, as well as a public role in the street. The trusty poster’s applications may have narrowed, but it remains an attractive medium for those who know how to use it.
In the pre-digital era, the NT posters’ role often didn’t stretch much further than the immediate environs of the theatre. The earliest posters by Ken Briggs appeared in poster frames on the front of the Old Vic theatre on the street known as The Cut, where the National Theatre Company had its base. There was no budget at that stage to pay for other advertising sites. After a time, the theatre began advertising on the London Underground and Briggs recalled researching the best locations and explaining to London Transport how posters with diagonal type should be displayed as a group.
In 1976, when the theatre moved to South Bank, posters were displayed both inside the building against its concrete walls, and in poster frames on the pillars on the theatre’s river side. A photograph in the archive shows an angled metal poster frame in the street at the rear of the theatre, displaying posters for Jumpers, Tamburlaine the Great and The Playboy of the Western World, all from 1976. By this time, the poster image was generally applied to the programme cover, which wasn’t initially the case, so theatregoers would always be aware of the production’s graphic image: as promotion, anticipation and recollection of the experience.
Posters still flourish at the National Theatre. A production without an image to represent it in public spaces would feel strangely sealed off and uninviting, like a house with no front door. But they live on as one of numerous graphic elements that form each play’s communication campaign. Since the theatre’s website was launched in 2001, the core poster image has needed to be adapted not only for other print media, but for dissemination on computers and later smartphones, as well as in moving-image versions, displayed in the theatre foyer.
It’s no longer possible for Winser and the Graphic Design Studio – as it was for Briggs, Bird and Mayhew – to think of the poster as a rectangle of immutably fixed proportions. The image needs to be flexible enough around the edges of the composition to adjust to fit a variety of platforms. Although they are still arguably the fullest and usually the purest expression of a visual concept, in terms of reaching an audience they are not the most crucial medium. The poster image has dissolved into a panoply of media, expanding and contracting as required.
Rick Poynor is Professor of Design and Visual Culture at the University of Reading. This article is adapted from National Theatre Posters: A Design History by Rick Poynor, published by Unit Editions (£35), uniteditions.com. The exhibition, National Theatre Posters, runs at the Wolfson Gallery, National Theatre, London SE1 9PX from October 4 to March 31 2018. See nationaltheatre.org.uk