All’s quiet now on the behind-the-scenes front at London’s Royal Court Theatre, which means the Sloane Square playhouse can devote its attentions to its real function as Britain’s premier theatre for new writing. But it wasn’t always thus, and who know how long the calm will last? The British press spent 1991 reporting all manner of courtly intrigue, and this year has already seen artistic director Max Stafford-Clark win his first-ever libel suit, against GQ magazine in Britain, for spreading defamatory comments about him.
Personalities aside, the Chelsea venue’s plays have often made news. Everyone knows that this is where modern British drama is said to have begun in 1956 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, but the theatre was more recently the sight of a protracted row over Jim Allen’s purportedly anti-Semitic piece Pendition, which was withdrawn from a production in 1987; and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation this past June drew a local loony several nights running claiming the play’s real-life story of Manhattan con artistry as his.Order now
IT’S RARE ON AND OFF stage to find a theatre so consistently in the headlines, which may be a tribute of sorts to the esteem in which the Court has long been held. Still, do readers of the downmarket London tabloid the Daily Express even know what the Royal Court is? Perhaps not, but last year, that paper, like many others, knew a good story when it saw one, and Stafford-Clark’s security of tenure was for a while the hottest showbiz story in town. “The fact is that journalists want controversy, and most people in the British theatre are so uncontroversial,” Stafford-Clark, 51, says now, looking back at the fierce debate engendered by his desire to prolong his leadership. Appointed in 1979, Stafford-Clark had already extended his contract once only to find that his desire for yet another extension was dividing the theatre’s ranks.
Leading the pro faction were playwrights like Timberlake Wertenbaker, whose career has blossomed at the Court from The Grace of Mary Traverse through Our Country’s Good and Three Birds Alighting on a Field, her 1991 play which returns to the mainstage in November. The nay-sayers included Hani Kureishi, who was a Court dramatist some years before he found screenwriting and an Oscar nomination with My Beautiful Launderette; and Matthew Evans, chairman of the publishing house Faber and Faber and former head of the Royal Court’s governing board, whose barbed comments in GQ prompted Stafford-Clark’s lawsuit.
The ultimate decision, when the board delivered it, seemed like a classic fudge: Stephen Daldry, 31-year-old artistic director of the tiny Gate Theatre in west London’s Notting Hill and winner of a special Olivier Award for that theatre in April, was appointed artistic director designate and would accede to the top job in October 1993. At that point, Stafford-Clark would become Daldry’s deputy, with the proviso that Daldry could dispense with him altogether if he wished. On April 1, Daldry moved into the building–to a desk adjoining Stafford-Clark’s–only to find that it would be a while before the two men occupied the room simultaneously. Stafford-Clark had a prior engagement with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford to direct Richard Brome’s 1642 play, A Jovial Crew, adapted by the Court’s literary associate, Stephen Jeffreys. And Daldry was off in the summer, rehearsing his Royal National Theatre debut Sept. 12 with an unexpected choice–J.B. Priestley’s wartime warhorse, An Inspector Calls.
The National opening night arrived, and history, it can fairly be said, was made: Here, working on a scale heretofore unavailable to him in London, was Daldry exploding for full emotional and visual impact the fustiest of repertory stalwarts, bursting Priestley’s play wide open to discover the Pirandello-ish masterwork that lay inside. No longer a domestic chamber piece about civic duty, Inspector Calls was played for visceral bravura, allowing Priestley his full weight both as a leftist agitator and theatrical renegade. Working with an extraordinary set by Ian MacNeil, Daldry turned the play inside out (often literally), placing the Birlings’ drawing room in a jewel box perched near the rear of the stage, while a charred, war-ravaged landscape occupied the front. The result was to cast Daldry immediately as a directorial subversive, which is no bad thing for an adventuresome cutting-edge theatre to have at its helm.
Although Daldry hasn’t directed at the Court since his appointment (excepting a reading of Canadian writer Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love), his influence can be felt in the choice of repertoire. While most Court shows are chosen by committee, it’s not difficult to tell which selection bears which artistic director’s imprint. While Six Degrees might have materialized at the Court anyway, it probably wouldn’t have arrived so speedily–and with the name of director Phyllida Lloyd, a Daldry chum, attached to it–without Daldry’s appointment. German dramatist Klaus Pohl’s Karate Billy Comes Home, seen in the Court’s Theatre Upstairs studio space in April, was originally meant for the Gate until Daldry, and it, shifted homes.
CONVERSELY, APRIL DE ANGELIS’S spiky but problematic Hush, seen on the main stage in August, was classic Stafford-Clark fare–a vaguely left-of-center lament for lost idealism written by a woman who had graduated from the 70-seat studio to the 397-seat mainstage. The Courts’s similarly pungent but underwritten current entry, John Byrne’s Colquhoun and Macbryde, about two London-based Scottish artists and lovers, represents a longstanding commission from a writer-designer whose most celebrated work, The Slab Boys Trilogy, began at the Court in 1978. Next year’s principal commissions–from Martin Crimp and Martin Sadofski, among others–are from writers with whom Stafford-Clark has sustained a relationship, a list which includes significantly more women (Wertenbaker, Clare McIntyre, the immensely gifted Winsome Pinnock) than are ever seen at the RSC or the National. Indeed, if Daldry has any catching up to do, it’s not in the field of directorial legerdemain but in forging ties with working writers.
What, then, is the Court’s agenda? Undoubtedly to do the highest quality new work around, a task that may be more daunting than ever as competition for top-rank work mounts. Already, the Court has lost such writers as David Storey (In Celebration), Jim Cartwright (Road) and Alan Bennett (Kafka’s Dick) to the National, where it is rumored that longtime Court devotee Caryl Churchill’s next play, The Striker, may end up as well. Under Richard Eyre’s guidance, the National is as hot right now as it’s possible to get, and it’s no secret that Six Degrees would have opened there also if Eyre had been fonder of the play. (As it was, the Theatre of Comedy, owners of the British rights, brought Guare’s play to the Court.) Elsewhere, the Almeida and the newly opened Donmar Warehouse offer significant competition, not to mention fringe houses like the Bush, Hampstead, and, yes, the Gate.
ON THE CLASSIC FRONT, the Court has an equally free (if competitive) rein, and it’s been heartening to watch the theatre’s programming establish certain modern plays as outright classics. Last year’s revival of Churchill’s Top Girls, directed by Stafford-Clark, reasserted the timelessness and scope of a play originally seen as a product of its age, the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s. (Lesley Sharp’s delivery of the final word, “frightening,” was indeed that.) This winter, the Court mounted Brian Friel’s 1979 Faith Healer, directed by Joe Dowling, in a shattering evening that gave this difficult play–a sequence of four monologues left to the audience to piece together–its due. In January, Stafford-Clark will make a rare foray into Shakespeare to direct Tom Wilkinson, his onetime T.S. Eliot in Tom and Viv, in King Lear.
It wasn’t long ago that some thought Stafford-Clark to be exhibiting a Lear-like folly as he clung to a theatre from which it was perhaps best to move on. But he, like his audiences, knows that when a play works at the Court, there’s nothing like it. Stafford-Clark may be tenacious; he and Daldry’s greatest link is their recognizable ambition. But when it comes to acknowledging a good thing on your doorstep, he is, as Lear might have said, no fool.