George Devine founded the Royal Court in 1956 as a platform for new playwrights—a stage for urgent, political, provocative theatre. Britain’s first national theatre company, at its heart, was an uncompromising commitment to challenging social and political orthodoxy, and a dedication to risk-taking. Now one of London’s best-loved theatres, it has helped launch the careers of numerous writers: Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, Jez Butterworth, Harold Pinter and Mark Ravenhill among them.
As the Royal Court celebrates its 60th year, we look back over six decades to some of its most iconic productions: powerful plays that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of their generation.
Look Back in Anger (1956)
In the summer of 1955, George Devine posted an advert in The Stage calling for scripts. The response was tremendous, and over 700 flooded in. One that stood out was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which had already been rejected by Laurence Olivier, Terence Rattigan and Binkie Beaumont. With its visceral rage against a stifling 1950s Britain, and its candid confrontation of sex, religion and politics, Devine recognized the frustrations of a younger generation, who he believed needed a voice. The production opened to empty houses and dismal reviews, but Devine stood by it. Now, the play is widely regarded as marking a change in British theatre, spearheading the emergence of a newly confrontational style of writing penned by a group of writers—Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Philip Larkin—who, in a phrase coined a Royal Court officer, came to be known as the Angry Young Men. In the words of Alan Sillitoe, “John Osborne didn’t contribute to British theatre: he set off a landmine called Look Back in Anger and blew most of it up. The bits have settled back into place, of course, but it can never be the same again.”
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
An out-of-work actor, Richard O’Brien wrote The Rocky Horror Show as a way to while away long winter evenings. A tribute to sci-fi and horror B-movies, he wanted to combine a garish humour with Steve Reeves muscle flicks and and 50s rock and roll. His outlandish story tells the tale of a newly engaged couple who find themselves caught in a storm and arrive at the house of a mad transvestite scientist who is about to unveil his new creation—a Frankenstein-style monster complete with blonde hair and a lurid orange tan. O’Brien took his work to director Jim Sharman, who decided to stage it in The Royal Court’s experimental Upstairs theatre. On its opening night, it was performed to an audience of just 63, but it soon took off, hitting Hollywood, Broadway and then the big screen. Audiences were so delighted by its cross-dressing cast that The Rocky Horror Show has become a cult classic, and the public recently voted it their favourite Royal Court production of all time.
Top Girls (1982)
Caryl Churchill’s seventh play for the Royal Court, Top Girls, examines the relationship between women and success, scrutinizing the idea of achievement, and how to define it. Set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s government, it was very much of its time, but its themes resonate today. Examining womanhood from multiple angles, it opens with a famous dreamlike dinner party sequence, during which the protagonist Marlene sits at a table with a handful of women from history who talk incessantly over one another. Pope Joan recites a verse in Latin while Dull Gret— the subject of a painting by Pieter Bruegel—says little and steals the occasional bottle of wine. Victorian traveller Isabella Bird speaks of her disappointment with her marriage and Chaucer’s Patient Griselda debates with Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine. “Directing Top Girls was like being behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce,” said Max Stafford-Clarke, artistic director of the Royal Court at the time. “It’s a wonderful machine that works, whether you can drive it or not.”
Sarah Kane only wrote five plays before she committed suicide, but her work—which deals with desire, love, and violence—has become epochal, and was typical of the increasingly confrontational work staged by the Royal Court in the 1990s. Kane wrote the opening scenes of her first work, Blasted, when she was still a student, and the completed play, directed by James Macdonald, opened at the Royal Court amidst a storm of controversy. Lambasted by the press for its brutal depiction of rape and torture in civil war—the Daily Mail’s critic Jack Tinker’s review was headlined “This Disgusting Feast of Filth”—it was praised by fellow playwrights Harold Pinter, Martin Crimp and Caryl Churchill. Today, Blasted is seen as a powerful statement on the parallel between domestic and war-related violence. “Sarah Kane’s writing was really shocking and surprising” says Kate Ashfield, who played the part of Cate in the original production. “The first scene is quite naturalistic—you don’t expect it to become as extreme as it does.”
Starring the mercurial Mark Rylance, Jez Butterworth’s meditation on rural England pivots around its wild and wonderful protagonist Johnny “Rooster” Byron, who opens the action by lowering his head into a water-trough via a headstand to rid himself of a hangover, before consuming a breakfast of milk, raw egg, vodka and a wrap of speed, all mixed together in a glass. Surrounded by a motley ensemble of teenagers, to whom he provides drugs and drink, the play follows Rooster in his last stand against local authorities, who are trying to evict him from his ramshackle mobile home and its surrounding encampment. Drawing on William Blake’s poem, the central theme in Butterworth’s play is that of place: Rooster is an emblem of a mythical England, a land of fable and folklore that is under attack from a faceless bureaucracy. With his bombastic script, and his incarnation of the whimsical, hedonistic Rooster, Butterworth claimed he was “satisfying a hunger in audiences for wildness and defiance. There’s a feeling that they’ve eaten something they haven’t eaten for years—something they’d forgotten, that’s really needed for their health.”
Sucker Punch (2010)
For Roy Williams’s fourth play at the Royal Court, director Sacha Wares transformed the stage into a bloodstained boxing ring, spotlighted in bright neon. A fable about race and money set during the 1980s in a run-down South London gym owned by the cantankerous Charlie, the drama unfolds against a backdrop of Thatcherism and race riots. It follows the story of boxers Leon and Troy, two 16-year-olds grappling to establish their identity in the midst of their surrounding social turbulence. Shrugging off his West Indian roots, Troy moves to America, where he is spotted by a promoter who puts him in a fight against his old friend Leon, who has tried to align himself with the white working classes, who ridicule him and love him in equal measure. Both Williams’s protagonists see boxing as a means to escape, but ultimately find themselves as pawns in a larger game. “I hope people do not come out from this play thinking, ‘Yeah it was so tough back then, but things are better now,”’ says Williams. “Yes, things are better, but only just! All it takes is a little nudge sometimes for us to fall back. It is not just boxers who need to keep their guard up, it is all of us.”
In the 1990s, Martin McDonagh became known for his barbed, dark scripts: plays that were macabre, unsettling, and sharpened by his acerbic wit. Last year, after a 12-year hiatus from the London stage—during which he tackled Hollywood, writing In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths—he returned in a blaze of glory with Hangmen, which was typically eerie, offbeat and ghoulishly funny. From the opening scene, set in a cell, where a condemned man is coerced into a noose by notorious hangman Harry Wade, to a musty, nicotine-stained pub in Oldham, where Wade presides regally over a hopeless bunch of motley regulars, McDonagh is a master of form. The play unfolds languidly over pint after pint until the arrival of a softly menacing Southern interloper who quotes Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and proceeds to charm Wade’s wife and befriend his daughter. This exhilaratingly crafted play, resonating with unspoken threats, deftly probes the peculiar tensions that lurk beneath the surface of everyday England.—Isobel Thompson
Credits: The Royal Court; Leonard Burt/Central Press/Getty Images (Anger)
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