The external lighting for the National Theatre on the south bank of the River Thames in London is a challenge that was never satisfactorily resolved in the theatre's first 25 years. The enormous flat, pale, concrete faces presented by the flytowers of the Olivier and Lyttelton Theatres housed within the building demand lighting to form a beacon drawing visitors from across the river, but somehow, suitable fixtures have never been found either in the original design or subsequent schemes. All dealt with the problem by attempting to provide a white floodlight wash up the flytowers from their bases; all suffered from problems of lamp failure or, in later discharge-lamp schemes, of lamps aging at different rates, leaving different parts of the building with slight but obvious color casts. And they were somehow never as theatrical as might have seemed appropriate for a theatre.

Now, however, the National has acquired a new external lighting scheme that is both elegant and dramatic, with the bonus of being highly flexible. The new scheme has been created ‘in house’ by the National Theatre, designed by the person with perhaps the most experience of lighting the building — National lighting technician Huw Llewellyn.

For the last five years, Llewellyn has been responsible for lighting the outdoor events in the theatre square — the area between the National building and the river — that have become an established part of the National's summer season. Featuring everything from concerts to circus acts, the performances have been lit using temporary rigs, with Llewellyn amusing himself by carrying the lighting, and sometimes projection and video projection, up on to the two flytowers; the 72' high, 88.6' wide rectangular Lyttelton flytower, in particular, does make a remarkably good projection screen.

“During that time, there was a refit of the outside areas for which a lighting scheme was proposed but which never happened for budgetary reasons,” Llewellyn recalls. “More recently, money became available from the Wolfson Foundation, which offered funds to ‘beautify’ the National. The two Nicks [the National Theatre's new artistic director Nicholas Hytner and executive director Nick Starr] asked whether we could light the building as part of that.”

Llewellyn's aim was to be able to make the building change color while also providing some form of image projection for logos or other artwork. For practical reasons, the project was divided into three phases: the first, lighting the river side of the building; the second, the back of the building; and the third, the remaining sides. Such has been the success of the first phase, operational since the middle of 2004, that phase two has already been implemented, and phase three will get underway as soon as funds have been procured.

Knowing what he wanted to achieve, Llewellyn went on a hunt for equipment along with lighting consultant Mick Cocker. “We looked at everything, including LED stuff, but for a building this size, it didn't quite cut it, particularly for color changing and with the budget we had.”

The final design, therefore, uses conventional dichroic color-mixing floodlights: five 700W Grivens lighting the river side of the Lyttelton flytower; six StudioDue CityColor 2.5Ks lighting the front and sides of the Olivier flytower; with six Irideon AR500s lighting the angled flanks giving the Olivier flytower its unique and defining shape. There is also one VARI*LITE VL3000 mounted in a Tempest environmental dome which provides image projection onto the Lyttelton flytower.

“The VL3000 works really, really well, and the Tempest dome does a great job of protecting it from both the cold of winter and heat of summer,” Llewellyn says. Since the building is listed in England's national register of buildings of historic architectural value, the lighting had to be concealed from view. “For the VL3000 with its dome, we had to install it on a scissor lift so that it is out of sight during the day, then rises up to its operating position as darkness falls,” he adds.

Control for the lights is achieved wirelessly using an Avolites eDMX system. The lighting is programmed on an Avolites Diamond 4 Elite console then stored and replayed in an Artistic Licence Four-Play unit, which raises the scissor lift, strikes the lights, sets up the state at dusk, then fades it out and switches off at 1am. The practicalities of the installation were masterminded by the National's Mike Atkinson, who was familiar with the ins and outs of this complex building, after having overseen refits of the lighting systems in all three of its auditoria and its foyers. As well as installing the lighting equipment, additional power has been installed around the roofs to make it easy to move or add equipment in the future “for when we change our minds or if, as we're considering, we invite guest lighting designers to light the building on particular occasions and they want to use something different,” Llewellyn explains.

For now, though, Llewellyn is king of the external lighting, trusted by the theatre's directors to make the building look good. He has created a series of core states which appear on different nights: big blocks of intense color with a graphic element dressed across it; the National's logo running up the side of the Lyttelton flytower in one state; a soft wave gobo played across it in another. On occasion, the building has also joined in with other lighting schemes along the river — turning red along with other nearby buildings for the recent Remembrance Day — and the plan is that, like the Empire State Building, its color will change to mark specific events such as St. Patrick's Day.

“The hard part is trying to find the language for the building and then communicating that to the world, so everyone knows that a particular color or look means a particular thing, and that's something we're still working on,” Llewellyn explains. “For example, in the early days of the National, a firework — ‘Ralph's Rocket’, after the actor Ralph Richardson who instigated the idea — used to be set off on every opening night. It would be great to have a successor to that.” The National is also considering involving the local community in what appears on the building, “perhaps asking children at a local school to design artwork for the building, which we can then turn into gobos for the VL3000.”

That is to come, but the designer is already braving cold winter nights adding more states to the building's repertoire. “The initial states we built were static. The response to those was quite overwhelming. Now, we're going to start experimenting with more movement, more dynamic states.” He's also excited about the possibilities available when the summer season of outdoor events returns, “since I can just hook the desk for those into the wireless network and control the building as part of the event lighting.”

The National has enjoyed a roller-coaster ride of acclaim in the nearly two years since Hytner took over as director. The new lighting scheme accurately reflects the excitement felt through the rest of the organization as Hytner has shaken it up, taking something traditional, familiar, and comfortable and re-inventing it into something seemingly new, refreshingly dynamic and, at last, unquestionably theatrical.

Rob Halliday is a lighting programmer (Les Miserables, Mary Poppins) and lighting designer. He can be reached at rob@halliday.demon.co.uk.