Backstage at The Barbican

Last Tuesday was a fun packed day which included a visit to our site at Victoria Station and a trip up the Walkie Talkie building to visit the newly opened Sky Garden.  From the Sky Garden I hot footed it over to The Barbican Theatre for a backstage tour.  This cost me the princely sum of £10 and was well worth it.  The current production is Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

There were 10 or so of us on the tour which started at the Advanced Bookings desk.  From there we went through the stage door and via the back stairs to Stage Right.  Unusually the Stage Door is very close to the Barbican entrance.  This is partly because the Barbican Theatre was never part of the original Barbican complex plan and partly as the main entrance used to be on the other side of the complex by the lakes.

Our tour guide for the hour long walkaround was Pierre and he was very knowledgeable of the theatre, the RSC, and the current production Henry IV.  Some of the people on the tour were seeing the show later and some had already seen it.  I however was just there for the building.  Having now done the tour I”m quite keen to come and see the show.

Pierre was happy for me to take photographs – and so I did!  The only restriction was that I wasn’t to take photos of the set from the audience’s perspective.  I took a decent selection some of which are included here.  A full set can be found on my Google+ site here.

Following an introduction to the Theatre and the current production from stage right we moved on to the stage itself which was pretty impressive.  The current stage is gently sloped to the auditorium although it can be set however it is needed.  Pierre also noted about the heavy metal fire curtain that both descends from above and rises from below to meet in the middle – something quite unusual apparently.

Standing centre stage

Pierre highlighted the staging for Henry IV and various elements of the stage that make the production work which I won’t describe to avoid spoiling it for people who may be going to the show.  Another interesting fact was despite the theatre having the UK’s largest number of ‘bars’ (I think that is the term that was used – the slots for scenery to be lifted up into the ‘fly tower’) that only one was in use for the light fittings that can be seen in the background of the photo above plus one other for a crucifix..  All the sets and staging are moved around at stage level by the stage hands – of which there are many for this production.

Something else that struck me when standing centre stage was just how much of Stage Left and Right you can see that audience members cannot – two very different viewpoints.  From Centre Stage we moved on to Stage Left where we saw the Stage Manager’s station and the various monitors used to see around the stage and to see what the audience were seeing.

Stage Left
Stage Left

While Pierre was talking various people were fussing about making sure all the props were where they should be and a few were pointed out to us.  It was amazing how many props there were from furniture to crockery and how everything had its place on the floor, on shelves and hung on walls.  Half a bed was highlighted – with the other half on Stage Right.  This was to make its appearance on stage quicker and simpler.

From Stage Right we passed around the rear of the stage which is really quite large.  This apparently arose as the design was largely influenced by the RSC as the ‘resident’ company when the Theatre was built and their need for lots of storage space for sets.  Huge sliding doors that opened onto the truck lifts were pointed out.  Henry IV needs 4 or 5 truck loads of sets we were told.

Behind the rear of the stage. Note the large sliding door to the truck lift on the left.

We eneded up back at Stage Right where some ‘quick-change’ changing rooms are also located.  As the main dressing rooms are a fair distance from the stage at The Barbican some nearby facilities for the odd quick change are provided.  We look at some more props including exquisitely made armour and some pretty impressive fighting gear.  The swords were pretty much the real thing!

Stage Right again and some impressive armour
Close up on some swords

From Stage Right we went out into the auditorium to see the stage as the audience would see it.  As I mentioned before it is amazing how different a feel you get from on the stage looking out to looking at the stage.  And the stage seems so much bigger as seen by the audience.

Pierre gave of lots more information such as how the auditorium was designed to be intimate and so no-one is more than 20m from the front of the stage, how there is no centre isle between the seats, and how all the auditorium doors are electrically operated so they can all be closed simultaneously! Very Star Wars!

From the auditorium we went out to the public area just outside the auditorium where we lingered to hear a few words about the design and architecture of the Barbican complex.  I personally love the Brutalist Architecture and fancy going on another Barbican tour on the architecture of the place.

The Barbicans wonderfully honest Brutalist Architecture

We then descended another floor (now 4 floors below ground level if I recall correctly) and we went under the stage to see what would be the orchanstra pit if one was being used for this production (it isn’t).  More props were evident plus smoke machines and ducting to create the fog on stage for the production.

Beneath the stage. Orchestra pit would be on the left if there had been one.

Another flight or two of stairs down – now 7 floors below ground level – we arrived at the Green Room (I think) with it own kitchens and cafeteria for cast and crew – with a whole load of people sitting eating – very surreal to come through a door and see this!  We left them to their food and returned to the main stairwell and lift and ascended to what must have been around about ground level (was getting lost by now).

Along a corridor and through the Gents toilets (yep you heard correctly) and we appeared on a platform looking down onto the stage and looking up into the Fly Tower.  By this time some of the actors for the evenings performance had taken to the stage to do their voice warming up which was most amusing to hear.

Some of the actors on the stage below warming up ther voices
Looking up into the Fly Tower

One interesting fact about the Fly Tower is that it protrudes a few floors above the general roof level of the Barbican Complex. To soften the impact a conservatory type structure has been installed around it inside which is a tropical oasis that is open to the public on certain days.  This is another place that is on my list of places to visit.

After a short while watching the actors and hearing about the Fly Tower we returned through the Gents Toilets and then up (or was it down) to ground level and back via the stage door to the Barbican Advanced ticket desk where our tour ended.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and interesting visit and recommended if you like that sort of thing.





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