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Michael Coveney: Buried treasure at the Royal Court and Stoppard's BBC

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Michael Coveney
© Dan Wooller
It's either a piece of bold and brilliant improvisation, or a desperate measure to fill a hole in the planning, but the Royal Court is going crazy this summer - summer, what summer? - with a programme of plays and events, they say, chosen by a group of over 140 writers.

Excuse me, that's not a group. It's a rabble, or a tribe, or a crowd of playwrights. A penful, or playpen, of playwrights, perhaps. And are there really that many performable playwrights in the world, let alone London, to populate such an agenda? The question is obviously rhetorical, as the whole premise here is that everyone's a playwright, and incoming artistic director Vicky Featherstone has handed them the keys.

Gauging the overall tenor of this festival will be a challenge to critics who already have a fairly full diary in June and July and can all too easily avoid grasping the bull by the horns, or the cow by the udders, by pleading too much to see, too little space, shows not on for long enough, etcetera. Well, that's my excuse ready.

Still, it's hard to resist the temptation of the weekly rep core of activity in which six brand new plays, by mostly unknown playwrights, will be performed by one stable ensemble, one play a week. Vicky Featherstone herself is directing two of them, with Caroline Steinbeis doing another two and John Tiffany and Carrie Cracknell - the newly appointed associates - one each.

Then there's a fortnight of five-minute Peckham soap opera segments live-streamed on the Royal Court website at 7pm (that'll put the cat among the pigeons with fans of Radio 4's The Archers) with an omnibus edition performed live in the Bussey Building in Peckham (the Court's brilliant new outpost, more "real" perhaps than Sloane Square as a location, if that's what you're looking for) and a "surprise" performance every Monday and Tuesday night, which comes with a surprise menu for two costing just £15; the main surprise, of course, will be if the food's any good.

Under the sub-heading of "Theatre Local" (in addition to the Bussey Building), Imelda Staunton and Toby Jones - ah, this is definitely going in the diary - are leading a new play by Annie Baker (no, not a clue) in something called the Rose Lipman Building (what's wrong with the Maureen Lipman building?) in Haggerston, which is somewhere in Hackney; and you are invited "to pull up a chair and wet your whistle" at David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in the London Welsh Centre at Kings Cross, but I wouldn't recommend it. The play was an interminable bore at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago.

Apart from delivering that admittedly minority opinion on the work of a playwright I usually much admire, I am refreshingly unable to mark your card, and that's the whole point of it, I suppose. Not since Bill Gaskill threw open the doors of the Court to the insurgent fringe in 1970 for a fortnight of a festival called "Come Together" (the People Show, Ken Campbell, the Victoria Theatre, Stoke, and a deliberately vomiting performance artist were among the highlights) has the venerable bastion of British new writing seemed so riotously under siege.

You can even put on some headphones and go searching for hidden plays around the nooks and crannies in the theatre, or join a season of workshops curated by ten-year-olds, or catch up with playwrights from Portugal, Italy Ireland, Greece and Spain (ie, PIIGS) on their experience of austerity in hard times, or just chillax by sipping Pimms and cocktails in the balcony bar, where the sun sometimes shines.

You have to suppose that some jewels will gleam in the dark fug of all this, and that audiences might find new ways of approaching new drama just as the playwrights will surely find new ways of approaching their audiences. And I have to say that the simple fold-out yellow brochure is a model of both clarity and expectation.

How, after all, do new playwrights really get going? I had completely forgotten (if indeed I ever knew in the first place) that a very young Tom Stoppard worked on such BBC radio projects as a series focussing on an Arab student in London and the daily soap Mrs Dale's Diary starring Jessie Matthews.

The BBC has played, and continues to play (though less spectacularly of late), a huge role in the nurturing of young dramatists, and Stoppard, like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, has written some of his finest work for the medium.

Four of those masterful Stoppard radio plays, in their original broadcasts - Albert's Bridge, Artist Descending a Staircase, The Dog It Was That Died and In The Native State (which became the stage play, Indian Ink) - have been collected in a CD box from the British Library, and they're wonderful company.

The company of actors is wonderful, too: Peggy Ashcroft, Peter Egan, John Hurt, Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Dinsdale Landen, John Le Mesurier... these discs are a treasure trove of great acting as well as writing, and a resounding slap in the face to anyone around you who might start moaning and groaning about Lefties at the BBC, waste of licence payers' money, seedbed of paedophilia, that sort of thing. The BBC, like the Royal Court, is the envy of the world and a necessary cornerstone of our volatile civilisation.