Michael Coveney: Vicky Featherstone comes out fighting in Court
My WhatsOnStage colleague Theo Bosanquet and I were discussing the value (pros and cons) of attending press announcements when the information is readily available online probably while the conference itself is under way.
But yesterday's breakfast-time press pow-wow in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court was informative in many ways that transcend the hard facts and statements of intention in cold print. Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail slunk away with a fistful of bacon sarnies (having told me that the paper is about to change its film critic). Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian entered late with a well-timed quip about the bad form of starting on time.
And Vicky Featherstone herself, proclaiming her first programme since taking control as artistic director in succession to Dominic Cooke, and throwing 140 playwrights the keys of the building in the Open Court season, positively bounced out of her corner, brimming with enthusiasm about theatre's role in asking what it means to be alive today (more bacon sarnies, hopefully) and in reflecting on the issues of our troubled times (crisis in the pig-farming industry?).
Whereas Cooke had declared his hand of doing more plays about the middle-classes (and did so, spectacularly, not only on the main stage - Clybourne Park, Jumpy, Posh - but also in the Theatre Upstairs with Polly Stenham, Anya Reiss and the Young Writers Programme), Featherstone talked of community work and schools tours, Muslims in Britain, more plays (and cheaper seats) for teenagers and using the whole building to its full potential.
Her statement amounts to a radical re-think of the Royal Court's role as our leading new theatre work venue and is following the general drift towards site-specific work, young people's involvement and a more free-wheeling, democratic and populist approach that has, even in the transitional period under Max Stafford-Clark and Stephen Daldry, been alien to more traditional theatrical intentions. George Devine and Lindsay Anderson are no doubt spinning in their graves.
It's as if Featherstone is saying, well, all that didn't quite work, let's throw the doors open and really see what happens. And she's certainly bringing her Paines Plough and National Theatre of Scotland flags into the hallowed foyer and planting them right there. Her first season is a wind machine to make them fly, with three stand-alone British premieres as her standard bearers.
Dennis Kelly's The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, which Featherstone will direct in September, is a story of greed and choice under capitalism; Let the Right One In is the National Theatre of Scotland's version of a horror movie in West End cahoots with Marla Rubin and Bill Kenwright (ah, so not quite so non-commercial after all); and The Mistress Contract by Abi Morgan promises to be an intriguing eavesdrop on some intimate exchanges over a lifetime.
Upstairs, there are plays from Chile, a Peckham soap opera, a Muslim Bangladeshi's take on Kashmir called Routes (not to be confused in radio reviews with Arnold Wesker's iconic Roots from an earlier Court era) and a "theatre adventure with food" for Christmas written by April de Angelis and one of the theatre's ushers, Nessah Muthy.
When John Osborne dumped the actress Jill Bennett for Bennett's great boozing friend, the journalist Helen Dawson, Bennett disobligingly described Dawson as "an usher" (Helen replied with remarks about the size of Jill's feet). But in Vicky's new democracy, an usher is a really excellent thing to be, and you break bread (literally so, in a play called Gastronauts) with leading writers, even if you don't necessarily get to sleep with them.
There is one hark-back to the Court's history and its association with Samuel Beckett. The Irish actress Lisa Dwan, who was a sell-out sensation in May with her nine-minute record-breaking delivery of Beckett's gabbing gob in Not I, will return with a Beckett solo triple bill in the New Year, adding Footfalls and Rockaby to the clacking of her cavities. The bill will be directed by German Beckett maestro, Walter Asmus, and will tour international festivals and theatres throughout 2014.
Lisa, bright and tiny, and dressed like Minnie Mouse, was on hand, too, at yesterday's conference, giving the journos a chance to meet an extraordinary artist they don't, at the moment, know very much about. You don't get that opportunity, or a real indication of Featherstone's passion, confidence and sheer energy, from a press release, either.
As it happens, Lisa turned up with her academic brother, David (a W B Yeats specialist at York University), at last night's opening of Richard Greenberg's The American Plan. It's an intriguing play and it drew a good crowd. The leading Jewish matriarch is played by Diana Quick, a close friend of Lisa's (they both love dogs) ever since she congratulated her after the first performance of Not I on the South Bank.
Mind you, Alfred Brendel, the great classical pianist and poet, is also a close friend of Diana's, and he was there, too, pacing restlessly about and still giving the impression of a man in a hurry with too much going on in his head to relax. To me, Brendel's a god-like figure, a pure and unrivalled genius of piano playing; and yet hardly anyone in the theatre foyer crowd seemed to know who he was, and he passed unacknowledged among them like big bug-eyed silvery fish out of his water.