It’s been four years since Vicky Featherstone took over programming at The Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea. Here, the Artistic Director of one of London’s most loved theatres, tells us why political turmoil can be good for writers
As the days go by, it seems like the world is becoming a sorrier mess. The refugee crisis may not be on the front pages any more, but it’s still very much there; Brexit looms large, and then there’s President Trump.
When I read that the archetypal bully Biff Tannen in Back to the Future was based on Donald Trump, that sent a shiver down my spine. Did you see the chaos Mayor Tannen caused to Hill Valley?
Yet, for some, world events are proving to be the springboard to creativity. ‘We are in a time of great political change and questioning the world, but oddly,’ remarks Vicky Featherstone, ‘though that is disconcerting, it can be good for the writers.’
The Royal Court’s Artistic Director of four years, Featherstone sees their mission to make sure voices from all around the world are represented.
‘Theatre is a place where we all sit together as a congregation if you like,’ she says, ‘and watch a story unfold in front of us. It’s a moment to reflect and think, not have all that constant news thrown at us, and to have a bit of empathy and understanding in a different context. That’s really important now.’
The Sloane Square favourite is now rightly regarded as one of theatre’s true shining lights, a place that doesn’t take the odd risk, but revels in showing a diverse array of productions that will challenge, ask questions and delight all in equal measure. We look at the forthcoming season across these pages and it’s a pitch perfect illustration of that approach.
We are in a time of great political change and questioning the world, but oddly, though that is disconcerting, it can be good for the writers
‘What’s extraordinary about the Royal Court is that the building has never been too big,’ Featherstone considers, ‘which has meant we are always able to experiment. So what the Royal Court has done for 60 years [it celebrated six decades since opening last year] is constantly renew itself. The mission is to find new work and writers, commission them and put them on – and that’s never had to change. But it’s always moving with the times.
‘When creating a programme, there is always the narrative of what does it all add up to and how does it communicate to the audience and the outside world,’ she continues. ‘What I always try to do is show as much variety as possible.
‘A theatre like the Royal Court has to respond to different kinds of writers and different kinds of stories, and push the boundaries of theatre. If I have got six plays all written in the same style, even if they were all brilliant, I wouldn’t put them on because it wouldn’t be showing a variety of voice.’
Would she say theatre is in a good place? ‘We will always say theatre needs more money to take the work further, but I think we are in an incredible place in Britain, but in London in particular.
‘Again it’s the variety, from local theatres like the Finborough, the potential of the Chelsea Theatre at the end of the King’s Road, and across London including the West End. It is such a vibrant scene.’
Featherstone says she prefers to look forward rather than back, as is the Royal Court’s prerogative, but she does allow herself a smile at one memory over the last four years. ‘I have learnt a lot and I continue learning,’ she says first up.
‘If I think back over four years it feels like a bit of a blur in a way because it’s always about the next thing we need to be doing, but one of my proudest moments was getting an email from Caryl Churchill.
‘I first studied her when I was 18 at university and she has always been my ultimate playwright, so getting an email from her saying “I have written a play and would I like to read it” was amazing… That was Escaped Alone [staged at the Royal Court last year], so if I was going to pick one moment, it is that.’
Vicky Featherstone’s top picks for 2017 at The Royal Court
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Jez Butterworth
24 April-20 May
They started rehearsals this week, with a fantastic amazing cast and the play is utterly brilliant. It feels like it is a great big family saga that is also incredibly political. I can’t wait to see it.
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Victory Condition is an incredible piece of theatre by Chris Thorpe, the writer. Chris is one of our leading theatre makers and he often writes and performs his own work as well, and he has written this piece exploring the life we have in London, and at the same time there are atrocities and complications going on in other sides of the world. I love when I am directing that I am able to go into a room at 10am and work for eight hours just thinking about one thing.
Sloane Square SW1W 8AS; 020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com