As the Royal Court enters its 60th anniversary season, The Resident speaks to artistic director Vicky Featherstone about its vibrant history, six play’s that have defined the theatre and why the upcoming season is not to be missed
Words: Will Gore
Ever since the Royal Court’s first artistic director, George Devine, established the English Stage Company at the venue in the mid-1950s, it has staged some of the most important and exciting theatre of modern times. The list of playwrights who are associated with the Sloane Square theatre (which includes Samuel Beckett, John Osborne, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and Caryl Churchill for starters) is an astounding one by any measure.
Ten years ago, then-artistic director Ian Rickson celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Royal Court by programming a series of classic play readings, performances and other events that explored the venue’s past glories. Now, its current artistic director Vicky Featherstone has put together an anniversary season of her own that, she says, aims to nurture the Royal Court’s history while looking to the future.
‘What Ian did was incredible, but coming up to our 60th year, the question that I wanted us to answer was how to make sure the Court is still here in another 60 years,’ Featherstone tells me when we meet in her office at the theatre at the tail end of November.
The first play of the 60th anniversary season certainly fits the brief of ‘respecting the theatre’s past while moving things forward’ with new offering from the aforementioned Caryl Churchill, whose dramas, including Top Girls and A Number, are among the most memorable ever staged by the Court.
Featherstone, 48, has 20 years experience as an artistic director, having joined the Royal Court in 2013 after stints running Paines Plough and the National Theatre of Scotland, but when we discuss Churchill and her play, Escaped Alone, which runs from 21 January to 12 March, she is in awe.
Featherstone has selected a broad range of new work for the anniversary season that showcases theatre from around the world
‘When Caryl sent me this play to read it was wonderful because she could have sent it anywhere,’ says Featherstone. ‘This is her home but we can never take that for granted. The really exciting thing is that this anniversary season is starting with a play by Caryl Churchill about four 70-year-old women talking about where the world is going and who are we.’
Featherstone has selected a broad range of new work for the anniversary season that, in true Royal Court tradition, showcases theatre from around the world alongside new plays from emerging British writers. Among the many shows on offer, there’s Ophelias Zimmer (17-21 May), a German-language production that puts Hamlet’s tragic heroine centre stage, and X (30 March-7 May), about a group of people working on a space station on Pluto, which marks a Theatre Downstairs debut for playwright Alistair McDowall, fresh from his success with Pomona, which recently transferred from its run at the Orange Tree to the National Theatre.
Because of the Royal Court’s longstanding commitment to producing new plays, the beauty in going there has always been that you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. Some of its productions meet with universal acclaim, many more polarise opinion. In Featherstone’s tenure so far I’ve seen a couple of productions, Hope and The Twits, that have, in my humble-ish opinion, proved disappointing. On the other hand, I also saw Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, which I loved to an almost unhealthy degree.
Running the Court would be a tough gig for someone not prepared for the wide-ranging reactions its output regularly elicits, so it’s a good job Featherstone seems perfectly able to take praise and criticism with equanimity. We have an amicable bit of back and forth about The Twits (Featherstone remains happy with it, I remain unconvinced) and she then makes clear she’s committed to continuing the Royal Court’s risk-taking ethos.
People disagree about our work and that’s great
‘People disagree about our work and that’s great,’ she says. ‘The audience are really brilliantly vocal to me and what is extraordinary is that the people come to this theatre because they are thrilled about things changing all the time, and they love that risk. Sometimes they will love something and sometimes they won’t, but as long as the audience can see why we’ve programmed a play or a writer then they’re fine. As Samuel Beckett said: “fail better”.’
A quote from as monumental a figure in the Court’s history as Beckett leads me to ask Featherstone what she would like her own legacy to be. She answers that she wants to ‘bring a few writers to the fore who will be part of our future theatre history.’ That’s one hell of a challenge to take on, but when you’re running the Royal Court, it comes with the territory.
For information about the 60th anniversary season visit royalcourttheatre.com
1950s: The Entertainer by John Osborne, 1957
Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger is synonymous with the Royal Court, but its follow-up, The Entertainer, is just as much a modern classic. The show helped revive the career of Sir Laurence Olivier whose performance as failing music hall star Archie Rice is one of his most legendary.
1960s: Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, 1962
Throughout the 1960s the Court continued to champion fierce political writing (Saved, with its infamous baby-stoning scene, for example). But the theatre also remained firmly committed to the avant-garde and the groundbreaking work of Samuel Beckett took top billing in this regard.
1970s: The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien, 1973
This riotous musicial celebration of sexual freedom, B-movies and rock ‘n’ roll started life in the experimental ‘Theatre Upstairs’ at the Royal Court and became one of its biggest hits. Over the years, it has grown from cult classic to global phenomenon.
1980s: Rita, Sue and Bob, Too by Andrea Dunbar, 1982
Dunbar’s first play The Arbor ran at the theatre in 1980 when was she still a teenager. Her best known play, Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, about a love triangle involving two schoolgirls and a married man, followed two years later.
1990s: The Weir by Conor McPherson, 1997
During this explosive period in the theatre’s history, The Weir stood apart from the Court’s more provocative works. This funny and deeply moving Irish play about a group sitting around in a pub telling ghost stories, quietly confronting their mistakes and regrets, became an international hit.
2000s: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, 2010
Clybourne Park by US playwright Bruce Norris may not have reached the same heady heights as 2009 hit Jerusalem or Lucy Prebble’s Enron, but it was still a mighty piece of work. The play skillfully employed caustic humour to tackle racial politics and political correctness.