This autumn at the Royal Court, artistic director Dominic Cooke (pictured) will direct two premieres by American playwrights – one set, and performed, on the eve of a presidential election and the other taking place in a drag queen cabaret – in the theatre’s main house.

The newly announced season – which, said Cooke at a press briefing today, is “all about sex … the whole thing” - will also include a 70th birthday tribute to veteran Court dramatist Caryl Churchill, a week of Arab debuts and new plays by Alecky Blythe, Leo Butler and Cooke’s own real-life partner Alexi Kaye Campbell, who submitted his manuscript under a pseudonym.

In the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

In the lead-up to the real contest between Barack Obama and John McCain in November, Christopher Shinn’s fictional election drama Now or Later, exploring the tension between liberalism and fundamentalism in American politics, will receive its world premiere on 9 September 2008 (previews from 3 September) and continue until 18 October. Shinn has had four previous plays staged at the Court: Where Do We Live, Four, Other People and, most recently, 2006’s Dying City, which was this year nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the US.

On election night, things are looking rosy for the Democratic party. But as the likely President-elect, his wife, advisors and 20-year-old son watch the results roll in, controversial photos of John Jr are gathering momentum on the internet and the press team are working on damage limitation. Eddie Redmayne (who won Newcomer prizes at the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards for 2004’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) returns to the stage to play the son, John Jr, in a cast that also features Domhnall Gleeson and Adam James. The part of Redmayne’s politician father has yet to be cast.

The second American play will be Wig Out!, written by 26-year-old Tarell Alvin McCraney who received his UK debut last year with The Brothers Size at the Young Vic, where it returns this October along with the UK premiere of his In the Red and Brown Water (See News, 3 Jun 2008). For Wig Out!, the Court’s Downstairs auditorium will be transformed, by designer Ultz, into the House of Light, a “hyper-glamorous and uber-competitive” drag queen refuge where the residents are primping and preening for a catwalk showdown. It runs from 28 November 2008 (previews from 20 November) to 10 January 2009.

During the run of Now or Later, an afternoon series of ten readings of Caryl Churchill plays will also be held Downstairs from 15 to 26 September 2008. Churchill has been associated with the Court for 36 years and is considered not only one of the most influential of living British dramatists but, according to Cooke, “the one who is most admired” by her peers. In recognition of that, the theatre has invited fellow playwrights to select and direct their favourite Churchill play in celebration of her 70th birthday.

The programme comprises one-off rehearsed readings of: 1972’s Owners (directed by April De Angelis), 1976’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Mark Ravenhill), 1976’s Vinegar Tom (Winsome Pinnock), 1980’s Three More Sleepless Nights (Debbie Tucker Green), 1982’s Top Girls (Nicholas Wright), 1989’s Ice Cream (Wallace Shawn), 1994’s The Skriker (Zinnie Harris), 2000’s Far Away (Martin Crimp) and 2002’s A Number (Joe Penhall), with a tenth still to be announced.

The final production in the Downstairs autumn schedule, with September/October dates still to be confirmed, will be Paradise Regained by Mark Ravenhill, an epilogue to his 16-play Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat cycle of 30-minute plays that ran at the Court and at other London venues in April (See News, 6 Mar 2008).

In the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs

The three new plays by UK playwrights given full runs in the 80-seat Upstairs studio all openly explore sex and sexuality in modern Britain. Alecky Blythe’s new verbatim drama The Girlfriend Experience (running 18 September to 11 October, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins), a product of the Court’s Rough Cuts season, is created from edited conversations recorded inside a real brothel in Bournemouth. Leo Butler’s Faces in the Crowd (17 October to 8 November, directed by Clare Lizzimore) catches up with an estranged couple with a baby debt ten years after their divorce. And Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride (21 November to 20 December, directed by Jamie Lloyd) looks at convention, compulsion and sex addiction in a triangle that moves between 1958 and 2008.

The Pride is the first play by Kaye Campbell, who is under commission to the Bush. As Dominic Cooke explained at today’s press conference, Kaye Campbell – who is the director’s real-life partner - submitted his manuscript under a pen name. Cooke said that, when the author’s identity was revealed, he resisted taking up the play, despite the recommendations of his staff and only reconsidered when offers were made by other theatres after a reading at the National. He worries that some may believe the play contains "salacious" personal details, but in fact, he laughs, "my life is much more boring".

From 11 to 15 November 2008, the Court, in association with the British Council, will present a week of rehearsed readings of new plays from the Arab world, under the title I Come from There. The readings are the result of an 18-month project begun in April 2007, when 21 writers from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Syria were invited to Damascus to work with Elyse Dodgson, head of the Court’s international department, and playwrights April De Angelis and David Greig.

Vital statistics, Spatial awareness

At today’s press conference, Cooke also released data on substantial shifts in the Royal Court’s audience. In the first 12 months since he took over as artistic director at the beginning of 2007 (See News, 24 Jan 2006), the Court’s two auditoria played to 91% capacity (up from 74% in the 2006 50th anniversary year, the final season under Cooke’s predecessor Ian Rickson), with just under 100,000 theatregoers coming through the doors (99,851 attendances) and £1.1 million taken at the box office. The year also witnessed a remarkable 311% increase by under-18s, as a proportion of the audience, coming to Sloane Square.

Cooke said that the relationship between a work and its audience was key to the theatre’s ongoing activities – both in terms of finding the right audience for each play and also in how that audience interacts, physically as well as intellectually and emotionally, with the piece. As part of the Court’s spatial explorations, Cooke promised that there would be more productions staged outside the main auditoria in Sloane Square (as with the current sell-out production of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions, presented in a rehearsal room accessed through staff offices) and in new, found spaces across London (as with Levi David Addai’s Oxford Street, staged this week in a disused shop at the Elephant & Castle mall).

Commenting on the new autumn 2008 season, Cooke said: “When I took over at the Royal Court, I said that I wanted the theatre to ask two questions – ‘Who are we today?’ and ‘What is a play?’ The 18 months since have seen us address those questions, taking significant risks, and being rewarded for those risks with a theatre that was 91% full last year. And that experimentation will continue … From the intimacy of the bedroom to the biggest stage in international politics, the autumn season at the Royal Court promises to be an exciting one.”

- by Terri Paddock