In the 1950s, the Royal Court made its name thanks to John Osborne and other “angry young man” playwrights who broke the pre-war dramatic mould by putting working class lives on stage. Now that Britain is “better off than ever before”, however, the Royal Court’s new artistic director Dominic Cooke plans to turn an uncomfortable spotlight on the people who comprise the majority of theatre audiences, the liberal middle classes.

Middle class values

At a press conference today to announce his inaugural season, which follows the Royal Court’s year-long 50th anniversary celebrations, Cooke outlined several shifts in programming and infrastructure, including the middle class focus as typified by the UK premiere of American Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch. Premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2005 before a sell-out run Off-Broadway, it’s set around a cosy family Thanksgiving dinner and is described as a social satire that takes “a withering look at phoney liberal values”.

“The main project of the British play from Look Back in Anger on has been about the experience of the outsider, the dispossessed,” Cooke said today. “This theatre in particular has told that story, that has been the focus and that energy has fired the theatre for decades… But perhaps we’ve taken our eye off the responsibilities of power.”

He explained that he now wants to “acknowledge and celebrate” the fact that a large component of his audience are middle class liberals by reflecting back “complex images of who they are” and exploring “the fraught paradoxes of what it is to hold liberal values… what it means to be middle class, what it means to have privilege and power”. The thematic shift mirrors changes in British society at large - Cooke noted that, while 50% of Britons lived on council estates 30 years ago, now less than 10% do so.

Cooke said he had also learned from his time directing Shakespeare’s plays of kings and queens as an associate director at the RSC that, “we are all so unconsciously aspirational”, and what’s more, “if characters on stage make important decisions that affect a lot of people, the dramatic stakes go up”. Cooke himself will direct The Pain and the Itch in his first production as artistic director. It will run from 21 June to 21 July 2007 (previews from 14 June) in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Revivals & repertory

Building on the success of outgoing artistic director Ian Rickson’s current production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, in a fresh translation by Christopher Hampton, Cooke also announced that he will be presenting two major revivals in his first season at the new writing theatre: Rhinoceros by Romanian-born French dramatist Eugene Ionesco, newly translated by Martin Crimp; and Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers, in a new version by Alistair Beaton.

Rhinoceros had its Royal Court premiere in a 1960 production directed by Orson Welles and starring Laurence Olivier. The Fire Raisers premiered at the Court a year later, directed by Lindsay Anderson with Alfred Marks and John Thaw in the cast. The new productions will mark the first major UK revivals for both plays. “The odd revival is a very good thing,” Cooke declared today because “any conversation between the past and the present enlivens theatre” and contemporary writers are challenged by having their work performed alongside past masters.

Uniquely for the Royal Court, Rhinoceros and The Fire Raisers – directed by Cooke and new associate director Ramin Gray respectively – will be performed in repertory by the same company of actors. Rhinoceros starts performances on 21 September 2007 and is joined in rep from 1 November by The Fire Raisers for a run to 15 December.

Building Blocks

In presenting an overview of 2007 today, Cooke identified three building blocks of his programme: commitment to new writers, internationalism and experimentation.

Following the current Young Writers’ Festival, the season will field four further plays by first-time playwrights: in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Belfast-born Lucy Caldwell’s Leaves (14 March to 7 April), which won last year’s George Devine Award and is directed by Garry Hynes; 20-year-old Polly Stenham’s That Face (20 April to 19 May), about a mother who gives her children easy access to drugs and alcohol, directed by Jeremy Herrin; and DC Moore’s story about a charismatic but racially intolerant young man, Alaska (24 May to 23 June), directed by Maria Aberg; and in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, My Child (3 May to 2 June), Mike Bartlett’s look at a desperate father’s custody battle, directed by Cooke’s other new associate director Sacha Wares.

The last will also mark the start of a new ticket pricing scheme for under-25’s, with 500 tickets for each main run available at just £5.

In support of both new writers and experimentation, Cooke is creating a Royal Court Studio – “giving writers time and space to explore ideas collaboratively” – and launching twice-yearly Rough Cut seasons of works in progress, the first of which will be held Upstairs from 2 to 15 July 2007. The autumn will field a three-month season of new international work, to include the UK premiere of German dramatist Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One and a possible residency for a foreign theatre company. In addition, the expanded International Department, under associate director Elyse Dodgson, will encourage more “two-way traffic” by giving British writers more opportunities to travel abroad to research both content and form.

The 2007 season kicks off, as previously reported, with the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Anthony Neilson’s highly experimental 2004 play, The Wonderful World of Dissocia from 28 March to 21 April 2007.

Summing up his first season and his vision for the theatre, Cooke explained in the press pack: “At the Royal Court, we are in the business of asking questions – questions about the world we live in and questions about theatrical form. My hope is that everything we produce here will address one of those questions; be it a new play on an unexplored subject or a revisited classic that engages with an experimental past. I want to encourage eclecticism and surprise, balanced by a clear commitment to key principles – nurturing emerging writers, an international perspective and a spirit of experiment.”

Speaking at today’s event, he reiterated the eclecticism of the new programme and said “I make no apologies” for it…. “I think it’s a good thing if the audience doesn’t quite know what’s going to happen next.”

- by Terri Paddock