The UK's National Theatre (NT), located in London's South Bank, is once again staging its summer outdoor festival. From July to September each year, Watch This Space brings al fresco performance to the capital, including a programme of free events from the world of theatre, dance and film. The season of literary and music festivals is in full swing and the NT's offerings will keep festival fever alive in the South Bank until the beginning of autumn.
Now in its 11th year, Watch This Space has a new, higher profile. In the past, it's been something stumbled across rather than sought out. This year's event, however, has been better publicised and more hyped. In light of the credit crunch, it is increasingly attractive. The programme includes theatre, music, cabaret and dance and, throughout August, a season of films from the British Film Institute Archive will be projected on to the NT's Flytower. All of it is free.
"It is very much about offering a wider programme to our audience, which goes beyond what we do inside the theatres," says the festival producer Angus McKechnie. "You can enjoy Watch This Space without necessarily enjoying anything else; you don't have to buy a ticket, you don't even have to buy a cup of coffee. It's absolutely about the NT being open to all." Outside the National, AstroTurf lines the so-called Theatre Square, with most of the festival's performances taking place on a blanket of fake green grass. A giant installation, "armchair theatre", provides audiences with a comfortable and playful oversized sofa to best enjoy the shows, adding to the relaxed feel of the festival. The atmosphere is helped by late-night performances, some of which begin hours after those taking place in the NT's indoor theatre space, and after-hours live music and DJs.
Among all the capital's distractions, the NT has successfully turned itself into a focal point, where members of the public and theatregoers feel compelled to linger and soak up the creative energies. People come here to chat, meet people and read, as well as to watch productions. In these summer months, much of the excitement is about more visitors exploring the space and seeing it used in a different way. The theatre walls are expanded, secret areas unlocked, doors flung open. It's about sharing in the atmosphere and energy, enjoying the location as well as the theatre. With the carefully constructed lawn, disproportionate furniture and theatrical street sets, the familiar seems new and the new strangely familiar.
An early highlight was Prodigal Theatre's groundbreaking Urban Playground, a programme of parkour work that sets out to demonstrate that with training and supervision, free-running can be a safe and rewarding creative art form. Involving a system of leaps, rolls, vaults and landings designed to help a person overcome obstacles and navigate their way over walls, fences, in between gaps and over roofs, parkour is an increasingly popular outlet and one that is well suited to the urban landscape of London.
Prodigal was selected after producers saw the show in Manchester. "It's amazing to be part of the festival," says the company co-founder Alister O'Loughlin. "We bring our Urban Playground set with us, but we work in the same theatre square and use its properties. We are right in the heart of the action - it's a privilege as well as being quite scary," he says. "We are also holding workshops in which we help people to understand what parkour is," O'Loughlin continues. "It's not just about jumping off a high wall, it's about the ground-level architecture. So far, we have had a fantastic response," he says.
For many of the NT's regular audience members, organisations such as Prodigal are completely new. "I didn't know what parkour was," says one elderly gentleman I encounter on the South Bank. "My wife read about it and wanted to come. I found it all a bit shocking, to be honest, but it's summer and we wanted to try something different. Going to the theatre shouldn't be about staying in your comfort zone."
Elsewhere, age has proven no barrier to enjoyment. Upswing, a company that aims to create multi-genre work using circus skills, wowed audiences with an aerial performances based on a current project, Loved Up. It's a manifestation of youthful romance set on bungees with a heavy breakdance influence. Open-floor sessions were held to enable members of the public to show off their breakdancing skills and a series of bungee technique and flying skills workshops were held for young people, breakdancers and those over 50.
The festival also works to draw in audiences that may never have visited the NT before, those that see the theatre as inaccessible or intimidating, or those concerned about ticket prices. "We provide a broad programme of events in order to attract the broadest and most diverse audience," says McKechnie. "For example, we have just had a fantastic week with a company called The Gandinis. They are essentially jugglers and worked in the NT studio for a week to create a brand-new show for us and then performed it over two days. It was absolutely stunning, one of the most beautiful things we have ever had in the Square. It worked particularly well because it was a company that we knew and we were able to generate a great new piece of work with them."
Watch This Space highlights are set to include a story dome with fantastical tales for all age groups, a Bank Holiday Dance Weekend, high-flying romance in Waiting on You and summer sounds from Grupo Lokito and the Sugar Kings. The maverick artist Matthew Robins and his band will present his ongoing series of romantic "shadow operas" performed in front of, and projected on to, the NT Flytower. These inventive and animated stories introduce us to the sad story of the half-human, half-insect Flyboy: unpopular at school, mocked by his peers and dealing with the unrequited affection of a giant robot, while his friend Mothboy is busy knitting a lovely new spaceship for them. A new episode of the drama will be aired each Friday, encouraging visitors to come back to watch the narrative unfold.
In order to select the best and most appropriate acts for the festival, producers travel to other events, both in the UK and abroad, seeking out a mixture of new and established companies. This year's spree has harvested four Catalonian dramas created by Cia la Industrial Theatera with Rojo and the UK debuts of the theatre company Markeliñe with Carbón Club and the dance troupe Gaizerdi Teatro, who will bring a version of Little Red Riding Hood, both from the Basque country in Spain.
"When I came across the Catalonian productions, I just fell in love with them," says McKechnie. "They are good, old-fashioned variety shows with acrobatics and clowning and they will inject a whole different tone into the festival." Returning this year is the Polish theatre company Teatr Biuro Podrózy with its award-winning version of Macbeth, involving armies on motorbikes, witches on stilts and a spectacular burning castle. "It is visually stunning," says McKechnie, "but it is also a really valid interpretation of Shakespeare. It has a significantly Polish twist and is quite political. The diversity of the programme is what makes it work."
"What's great here on the South Bank," McKechnie continues, "is that the NT can maintain the qualities and expectations that it has indoors in an outdoor work and that is something that people seem to be drawn to."