The most important theatre in Europe
— New York Times
On 8 May 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court on Sloane Square. It was the third production of the new English Stage Company, under Artistic Director George Devine, and is now considered the play that marks the beginning of modern British drama.
George Devine aimed to discover ‘hard-hitting, uncompromising writers’, and create a company that would challenge and stimulate British theatre. In January 1956, he placed an advert in The Stage calling for scripts and received over 700 submissions. The one that stood out was Look Back in Anger, a play already rejected by Laurence Olivier, Terence Rattigan and Binkie Beaumont. Look Back in Anger opened to empty houses and mostly terrible reviews (with the exception of Kenneth Tynan in the Observer), but Devine stood by both the playwright and the play, which expressed the anger and frustration of the younger generation in the 1950s.
The Royal Court was Britain’s first national theatre company, and has held firm to its vision of being a writers theatre. Its plays have challenged the artistic, social and political orthodoxy of the day, pushing back the boundaries of what was possible or acceptable. Throughout the 1960s the Royal Court regularly came into conflict with the Lord Chamberlain Office (the official censors of the London stage). Three plays were refused a license to be performed at all (Osborne’s A Patriot for Me and Edward Bond’s Saved and Early Morning). These battles led to the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain Office in 1968.
Absolute proof of the power of live theatre
In 1969, the Royal Court opened the 60-seat Theatre Upstairs, one of the first black box studios opened by a mainstream theatre. Early productions included The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’ Brien and Owners by a new writer for the stage, Caryl Churchill, who went on to write 17 plays for the Royal Court.
The 1960s and 1970s expanded and consolidated the Royal Court’s reputation. Writers such as Peter Gill, Christopher Hampton, Athol Fugard, Howard Brenton, David Hare, David Storey, Joe Orton, Ann Jellicoe, Wole Soyinka, David Edgar, Sam Shepard and Mary O’ Malley all cut their teeth at the Royal Court. Plays such as Saved by Edward Bond, The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton and The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker are now staples of the British stage.
The Young People’s Theatre was set up in 1966 to develop and produce the best new writing by young people under 25, encouraging writers from all sections of society to find their voice. This led to the first Young Writers Festival in 1973, which is now a regular event.
The undisputed epicentre of new writing in this country
— Time Out
Max Stafford-Clark became Artistic Director in 1979 and steered the Royal Court through the turbulent 1980s. In a period of funding cuts and rising costs, he nurtured a new group of emerging playwrights such as Andrea Dunbar, Hanif Kureishi, Sarah Daniels and Jim Cartwright and presented seminal productions including Victory by Howard Barker, Insignificance by Terry Johnson, Our Country Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker and Rat in the Skull by Ron Hutchinson.
The heart of George Devine’s vision was to bring the nation to the stage and to produce plays that examined the challenges and possibilities of the time. One play that realised this vision was Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, which opened in 1982 and captured the spirit of the age. Throughout the 1980s, the Royal Court swam against the tide of lavish West End musicals and comfortable comedies, staging writers who questioned and challenged.
The 1990s recaptured the fury of the 1950s. Stephen Daldry’s Royal Court was young, angry and noisy. Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall, Jez Butterworth, Anthony Neilson, Martin McDonagh and Mark Ravenhill wrote visceral plays, which confronted audiences with an increasingly violent and isolated society.
However, by the early 1990s, the theatre was on the brink of contravening health and safety regulations and guidelines. In 1995, the Court was told that, within eighteen months, the building would be forced to close. In the same week as the New York Times described the Royal Court as the most important theatre in Europe, The Times called the building a ‘dump’.
It’s hard not to rave about the Royal Court
The theatre’s lighting system was old and untrustworthy with an increasing number of sockets becoming dangerous; two similar wooden grids, at the Haymarket and Strand theatres, had recently broken, thus leaving the Court’s at the top of the danger list. The job of putting on shows had become more difficult and more and more costly. Moreover the drains, which Granville Barker hated in the early 1900s, still flooded the stalls and understage; the creak of the seats which Bernard Shaw got irate over in 1906 infuriated Harold Pinter in 1994 and the dressing rooms which Laurence Olivier said were ‘slightly worse than Blackpool’s were in 1932’, were all in a sorry state. The office space had ceased to be functional. Audience facilities had become unacceptable.
In 1995, with the advent of the National Lottery, the Royal Court had a once in a lifetime opportunity to restore its crumbling stage and make safe the structure of the building. However, it also realised that there was a rare opportunity to address the wider issues of accessibility and the theatre’s position within the community. Therefore, it undertook a feasibility study of the entire building, its operation and the structure and management of company. Subsequently, a bid was submitted to the Arts Council of England for capital development. In the first wave of grant awards, the Court was awarded £16.2 million.
Redevelopment work began on the Royal Court Theatre on 24 March 1996. The building work touched all parts of the original building; however, the major features of the facade and the intimate auditorium have been preserved. The new theatre has significantly improved the quality of the building’s facilities for performers and theatre-goers. In particular, the theatre includes facilities for people with disabilities and, for the first time in its history, is fully accessible for audience members, performers and staff.
While the Royal Court was forced to close for rebuilding, it took its message to the heart of the West End, taking over two theatres; the Theatre Downstairs found a home at the Duke of York’s on St Martin’s Lane and the Theatre Upstairs moved into an adapted Ambassadors on West Street. From these two theatres, the English Stage Company expanded its work, staging more and more plays not only from Britain, but from around the world. Continuing Devine’s vision of a truly international theatre, the International Programme was founded to find new voices in other countries and bring their work back to London. The renamed Young Writers Programme continues to discover new writers in communities up and down the country.
The most stylish, welcoming and imaginatively designed theatre in town
— Daily Telegraph
The new Royal Court, which opened its doors in February 2000, was a powerhouse: a confident, vigorous company still committed to its founding ideals. Ian Rickson led a Royal Court producing more new plays than any other theatre in Britain, with plays by Caryl Churchill, Terry Johnson and David Hare sitting side by side with work from young playwrights such as Simon Stephens, Roy Williams and Leo Butler. The Young Writers Festival and International Season continue to produce the hottest new talent from the UK and around the world.
After 50 years, writers, directors, actors and audiences still look to the Royal Court for the classics of the future. Plays that were once considered subversive, immoral or blasphemous are now studied in schools and performed all over the world. George Devine wanted to create a ‘vital, modern theatre of experiment’. 50 years on, that theatre stands at the centre of a vigorous, renewed culture of playwriting.
2007 to present: Dominic Cooke
1998 – 2006: Ian Rickson
1992 – 1998: Stephen Daldry
1979 – 1992: Max Stafford-Clark
1977 – 1979: Stuart Burge
1975 – 1977: Robert Kidd and Nicholas Wright
1972 – 1975: Oscar Lewenstein
1969 – 1972: William Gaskill, Lindsay Anderson and Anthony Page
1965 – 1969: William Gaskill
1956 – 1965: George Devine