The formation, 50 years ago, of the English Stage Company was the catalyst for change that broke the mould and swept away the mildew of British theatre. Within five weeks of taking over the Royal Court, a small Victorian theatre in Chelsea - just a stone’s throw from the West End but not in the heart of it - founding artistic director George Devine had staged the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger which became a rallying cry to look forward in hope to a new kind of socially observant theatre.
As Osborne said in 1981, “Nobody else but George Devine would ever have put on that old play of mine: that’s the absolute truth. It had already been sent back by about 25 managers and agents. And nobody else but George would have supported it, to the hilt, in spite of a lukewarm reception by most critics; in spite of a slow box office; and in spite of being attacked – and hurt – by a lot of people he respected in the conventional theatre, including personal friends.”
In the process, Devine created the template that has been followed by the theatre ever since: to stick by its writers, and always put those writers first. From Edward Bond to Jez Butterworth, Caryl Churchill to Sarah Kane and Christopher Hampton to Martin McDonagh, the Court has provided a spiritual as well as physical home to the playwrights it has nurtured and keeps on discovering.
And even if scenes off-stage are frequently tumultuous in this passion-driven theatre, the stability of its artistic leadership of it is a large part of its success. We spoke to the three most recent artistic directors to revisit the past and look to the present and future of this most influential of theatres: Max Stafford-Clark (1979-1992, who now runs touring company Out of Joint); Stephen Daldry (1992-1998, currently director of the West End hit Billy Elliot and an international filmmaker); and Ian Rickson (1998 to the present, though he will leave at the end of the year, to be succeeded by Dominic Cooke).
Did you feel burdened by the legacy
of the Royal Court when you took over?
Max: “Certainly the Court’s history is a weight, and I was much less successful in coming in terms with reaching a rapprochement with the giants of the past than say Stephen was. I was always close to Bill Gaskill, but I don’t think I was ever given a papal enunciation by Jocelyn Herbert!”
Stephen: “I think anybody taking over the Court is aware of the legacy; but given the amount of support I had from Jocelyn Herbert, Lindsay Anderson, Bill Gaskill, Nicholas Wright and Anthony Page, they were consistently a source of strength throughout my time there. I think the burden of the legacy is only the consistent need to discover and produce the next generation of writers.”
Ian: “I actually think the legacy is quite freeing. It is a narrative that runs to Granville Barker and will go on beyond me, so therefore my role is simply being part of that narrative. The Court is bigger than all of us. I think of the legacy as more like an inspiration.”
What brought you to the Court in the first place?
What makes it so special?
Max: “I started at the Traverse in Edinburgh where I was interested in new work, and so the Court was a natural homing ground. It remains the only theatre of its size in a major metropolis committed entirely to new work; and it changed the whole structure of theatre in this country.”
Stephen: “Jocelyn Herbert asked me to apply. I had previously only directed a couple of readings at the theatre. It is special, firstly for its legacy; secondly, for its unique policy of being the only theatre dedicated to new writing; thirdly, for the literal physical space of the theatre; and lastly, for not having to be popular – the right to fail continues to be of primary importance.”
Ian: “I was interested in new plays, but the late Eighties and early Nineties were the nadir of their fashionability. All the directors were aspiring to be auteurs, and the energy was in the classics. So I banged away on the fringe, and fortunately got a little toehold reading plays for the Court, and Max came to see a little play I was doing at BAC and asked me to work with the Young People’s Theatre. I was then lucky that I managed to direct some of the key plays there in the renaissance of new writing in the mid-Nineties, like Mojo and Some Voices. I was 33 or 34 when I took over. I was young and had never run a building before. I love it, but it’s very hard work. You have to manage a lot of anger, because of the passion that people hold the Court in, but there’s such pride in the importance of what it does.”
What was the Court’s greatest achievement before you took over?
What are you most proud of from your time in charge?
Max: “Bill Gaskill said the first duty of the theatre is to survive, and I suppose its survival over 50 years is the greatest cause for celebration. During the time I ran it, there was an attempt to withdraw the theatre’s funding completely that I’m proud to have survived.”
Stephen: “There have always been major waves of new work of importance, not just for this theatre but for the national culture. And Max saving the theatre from being shut in the Eighties. For myself, the rebuild of the Court, and the constant process of expansion as we carried on the work in the West End during the closure. And during that burst of energy, I was lucky enough to provide the opportunity for playwrights from Sarah Kane and Joe Penhall to Nick Grosso to flourish.”
Ian: “The revolution of 1956 genuinely articulated a new era of passion, anger and dissent that propelled the British theatre that could be seen at that time as rather rarefied into the contemporary. But the Court needs constant renewal, and all along the way there are key moments, such as the real pressure in the Eighties that Max fought off; and coming back to a renovated building that is deficit-free. I’m proud that a whole generation of writers have progressed from the Theatre Upstairs to downstairs and are on to their fourth or fifth play, like Conor McPherson, Rebecca Gilman and Simon Stephens. There’s a very secure group of playwrights now with a purposeful vision for the future, who will continue to write plays from a position of strength.”
What’s the role of the Royal Court now & in the future?
Max: “It’s still the only the only theatre absolutely committed to new work. If you looked at the world through a telescope from Mars, the Almeida or Donmar are really the National writ small – there’s the same dependency on star casting and musicals from time to time, and the same kind of fashionable demographic. But the Court at its best – and it isn’t always at its best – is committed to social curiosity.”
Stephen: “The Royal Court has managed to maintain its primary position as a producer of new plays in this country, and continues to be incredibly influential throughout the world in the writers it produces and exports.”
Ian: “Tony Richardson said in 1976 that the Royal Court is a revolution achieved. Where we are now in terms of the culture of sustainability for playwrights is terrific, but that could all fall away. Things come in cycles – there could be a renewal of the director as the primary artist in the theatre. So you have to keep investing in the sustainability of playwrights’ careers.”