You Spin Me Right, Right Round

Before you read what I’m writing about today, take a minute to watch this video:

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I often write about theatre and technology, but this is something else.  This amazing piece of mechanics creates illusion in a very different way. The following article, written by Nina Caplin in The Telegraph explains it all.

Inside the Olivier’s drum revolve

It’s the mechanical beast that allows the Olivier’s actors to be spun round invisibly – and to rise miraculously from the depths. But what’s it like being in the drum revolve’s jaws?

After World War II, when a National Theatre finally became more than an excellent idea that nobody wanted to pay for, the architect Denys Lasdun was appointed to design the new theatre on the South Bank. The company, under Laurence Olivier, was up and running by 1963 but their purpose-built home took rather longer, and the most revolutionary (in every sense) part of it took longer still. The Olivier Theatre’s drum revolve is an extraordinary, five-storey, computer-operated double lift contraption that enables the stage to be lowered through the floor and spun around.

The drum revolve in action, rising up with a cork screw action

The drum revolve in action, rising up with a cork screw action

And, because it’s split into two, operators can swap one half for the other without, in theory, the audience suspecting a thing. It is complicated, expensive and mechanically flawed, but it speaks of the kind of dramatic ambition a national theatre should have – and when it is cleverly used, the results can be amazing. The clever usage took a while, though. The entire building is wrapped around the drum’s contraption, or as Di Willmott, production manager on 2011’s Emperor & Galilean, puts it, “the whole mechanism is inside a big baked bean tin”. The two semicircular elevators, known as Red and Blue, weigh 25 tonnes each, plus 25 tonnes of counterweight. It must have been a brave actor prepared to rise up from the basement to the Olivier stage on a 100-foot lift operated by a 1970s computer.

The control panel and operator of the National Theatre's drum revolve

The control panel and operator of the National Theatre’s drum revolve

And in fact, even though the National Theatre building opened in 1976, it was 1988, and Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, directed by Howard Davies with a set by William Dudley, that – in the words of then-Director of the NT Richard Eyre – made sense of the Olivier revolve for the first time. Shortly after it opened, Eyre met with Lasdun and told him that despite admiring the NT building and getting a thrill out its public spaces, he found the Olivier a difficult theatre to present plays in, “Which,” said Eyre, “I suppose is a bit like saying that you have a watering can that doesn’t hold water.” Lasdun called him a barbarian. Willmott took me backstage, during Emperor & Galilean, to see the beast in its lair. We descended seemingly endless steps, in the dark (well, Willmott had a torch), to find a lone man – show operator Simon Nott – shifting a series of levers in front of a screen. The raising and lowering and rotating is his job; everything must be in just the right place, so that doors line up for actors to enter and leave and scenery to be wheeled in or out. Everything should happen quietly, although until recently that wasn’t the case: ‘When it starts going around,’ said Nott, ‘you can’t hear yourself think.’ The metal tracks of the revolve weren’t quite perfectly round, and loud music was required to drown out the noise of its motion. But that, Sacha Milroy tells me now, has been fixed. Milroy was Production Manager on His Dark Materials, the vastly ambitious adaptation of Philip Pullman’s vastly ambitious trilogy; she is now, perhaps not coincidentally, PM of the entire theatre.

The National Theatre's drum revolve stage in action

The National Theatre’s drum revolve stage in action

Backstage, I stood at the base of the incredible golden gates from the Emperor and Galilean set and craned up. It’s all right this way, Willmott said, but the other way round is harder: ‘The first time you look down and see the floor 100ft away it’s very frightening. But now I’ve done it hundreds of times.’ Ben Wright, an actor in His Dark Materials, described feeling daunted by its size, but added: ‘It’s a great feeling when it’s moving, you’re going up 20ft into air then back down again.’ His co-star, Inika Leigh-Wright, was less robust: ‘You can hear everything going on above you and it sounds 20 times louder than it actually is and it’s quite scary.’

The view from inside the National Theatre's drum revolve

The view from inside the National Theatre’s drum revolve

As the actors floated up and down during that show, more prosaic work went on below: Milroy describes the 6-metre space that they lowered, re-dressed, exchanging furniture and snapping panels on and off, then raised as an entirely different room; critics talked of witches and bears on the stage’s upper regions and Oxford colleges rising from its lower depths. Even those who didn’t love the show marvelled at the design. As well they might: with the exception of Vienna’s Burgtheater, there is nothing like the drum revolve in Europe. So, why isn’t it used – and talked about – more? Partly, because it’s so expensive: ‘It eats money,’ says Milroy, ‘and it’s hard to get your head around – it’s quite cumbersome, so you need to understand the nuances and use it in a subtle way.’ Not easy with a contraption that weighs 100 tonnes. ‘An awful lot of designers are quite terrified of the logistics and the complications,’ says Milroy – and in fact Giles Cadle, who designed His Dark Materials, worked on the show for two years.

The drum revolve in action during 'War Horse'

The drum revolve in action during ‘War Horse’

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