The Shed: a splash of colour in London’s theatrical landscape
The Shed, an intimate space at home to experimental theatre, seems like a venue designed to suit the times. At the heart of its success is Ben Power, a dramaturg, ‘shadowy figure’ and Shakespeare’s ‘remixer’
Ben Power, programmer at temporary theatre space the Shed. Photograph: Clare Nicholson
Owen Roe as Romeo and Olwen Fouéré as Juliet in A Tender Thing, written by Ben Power
It draws your eye, crossing the Thames on Waterloo Bridge, or slows your pace while walking along London’s South Bank: a huge incongruous wooden structure, as bright red as a new barn. Even among the eye-catching additions to London’s sleek and corporate skyline, the cheering sight of The Shed makes tourists pause to have a look, its four tall chimneys making it seem, vaguely, like an animal on its back.
In less than a year since this temporary space first appeared (while the National’s smallest auditorium, the Cottesloe, undergoes refurbishment), the Shed has distinguished itself as a visual spectacle against the grey barracks of the National’s complex, and in its programming it has emerged as one of the most exciting venues in London.
With a small capacity and an intimate performance space, it seems like a theatre designed to suit the times. It has hosted solo performances that seem to speak directly to the audience, such as Sea Wall, Simon Stephens’s devastating monologue for Andrew Scott, or staged work that literally involves them, such as Rob Drummond’s audience-volunteer-dependent Bullet Catch. It has also hosted ambitious experimental work from America’s Team, and several new works, such as Debbie Tucker Green’s play Nut or Nadia Fall’s Home. Soon it will host Olwen Fouéré’s incantatory Riverrun. It is hard to separate this space’s sense of daring from its architecture, and it is hard to separate its identity from its programmer, the writer and dramaturg Ben Power.
It would be too easy to construe Power, an affable man in his early 30s, as a “young fogey” – a Cambridge graduate in horn-rimmed spectacles and Converse. “It has never needed to justify itself,” he says enthusiastically of the Shed, “which has then allowed us to be really brave in the programming of it and to reach out to a new constituency of audience and type of artist; to introduce artists to this organisation who haven’t been here before.”
Audience at the heart of it
He agrees that it readily accommodates the intimate methods of contemporary theatre, which might be lost in larger venues. “These artists are not making work to be separated from the audience,” he says. “The implication of the audience, formally and in the content, feels like it’s really at the heart of what they’re doing.”
You could say the same about Power, who has long taken a bracing approach to the architecture of classic plays, refurbishing their interiors, retrofitting old dramas with modern extensions, and letting audiences appreciate them from surprising new angles. His first adaptation was Paradise Lost, with his mentor Rupert Goold’s Headlong company. There he also reworked Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus to accommodate an ingenious parallel plot involving Britart’s enfants terribles, the Chapman brothers, plotting to deface Goya’s etchings. The disputed soul of the play became a debate about ownership and art. When the company staged Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, a once-radical work long made overfamiliar, Power sought to return the shock of the new by transplanting it to a reality TV studio, where a family appear and demand that their story be filmed.