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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Tuesday, July 11, 2006 ::

Royal Court 50

It's a sign of how bankrupt the current Royal Court is that it can't even celebrate its own golden jubilee properly. What did we get on that mythical 8 May anniversary? David Hare giving his John Osborne memorial lecture - (a) it's four years old, and (b) it's a pugnacious piece but it's hardly Edward Said, is it? And then there was a gala tribute to Look Back in Anger. This was a compilation of bits from the play interwoven with quotations from Osborne, Richardson and Devine. Sure, Look Back in Anger came across well (this is a play that should only ever be seen in extracts and preferably with David Tennant in the lead). But the quotations were laboured, well-known and performed without any evident understanding. At one surreal moment Corin Redgrave inched onto the stage to recite Kenneth Tynan's review - and got a round of applause. I have nothing against Old Spanky, but it's come to something when a critic gets echoing applause at the Royal Court. The rest of the week was a series of the usual lukewarm panels on the usual unimaginative themes (I exempt Caryl Churchill's environmental panel from this). And otherwise, what? A series of readings. The National did something like this for the Millennium, so that seemed old hat. Otherwise it's been very drab; some half-hearted celebrations of aspects of the Court's history (the productions without decor, the come together festival, etc.) that could only appeal to anoraks like those writing for Encore.

Most significantly, what have they programmed? The best play of the Court's year so far was Motortown by Simon Stephens, and they swept it aside to celebrate the anniversary. Motortown is not a perfect play; it isn't aiming at perfection. It's a brutal, rough, awkward play that steps aside to look at England with fresh eyes and is shocked into savage horror by what it sees. Given how Stephens's work has been tending ever more towards subtle despair and gentle hope, this was a major dramaturgical revolt by one of our key contemporary writers. It was given an excellent, spare, stylish production by Ramin Gray, all contained choreography, waiting to explode. The play builds to a horrifying scene of kidnapping, torture and murder, which the rest of the play barely manages to follow, but what is unmistakeable is a passionate intellect attempting to ask whether we have the society we really deserve. Quite fortuitously it had the inchoate anger of Osborne, careless of form in the desire to connect, connect, connect. It had a production that recalled, in some visual aspects John Dexter's early work at the Court (brick walls and lighting rig exposed, sense of ensemble). It had the state-of-England range of the 1970s, the concern for sexual politics of the 1980s, and the physical violence of the 1990s. It was - unintentionally, I am sure - a miniature summation of the Royal Court's history. This should have been billed as the gemstone in the season.

But it wasn't. Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll was. Stoppard is not a Royal Court writer. He is politically conservative. He flatters his audience. He is a member of the establishment, a theatrical knight. He rarely, if ever, engages with the world. We are not expecting sociology, but he has the kind of aloofness from the present that the Royal Court has always detested. The Court, at its best, stands for political theatre in its richest, broadest, most generous and engaged sense. Non-realist writers at the Court, like the later Churchill or Motton or Crimp or Kane, all have a deep understanding of the tectonic shifts of the imagination, deep tremors of the collective heart that make their plays fiercely contemporary. Living in the post-9/11 world has been somehow easier and better with the knowledge and memory of Churchill's Far Away. Who will take anything away with them from Rock 'n' Roll?

Plans to bring Bill Gaskill - one of the great directors of our theatre - back to the Court foundered when he discovered they had programmed Rock 'n' Roll. Caryl Churchill, so it is said, revoked the rights to revive Cloud 9 for the same reason. There has been widespread disquiet at the news. Of course, the play sold out before it opened. What was the point of the Court again?

The Royal Court is one of the beacons of our theatre and it is being left to wither in the hands of Ian Rickson, who is plainly lining up projects for his post-Royal Court life and, by all accounts, is refusing to take any responsibility in his final year, and Graham Whybrow, a man so in touch with contemporary culture he apparently does not own a CD player or a television. Will Dominic Cooke make a difference there? Let's hope so. One of our great theatres is missing.

i have the greatest respect for simon stephens, but motortown was a mess. powerful, brilliantly written in parts, with some flashes of deeply uncomfortable truth, and wonderfully performed, but the story didn't ring true for me at all, and if someone's going to make me watch torture and murder on stage, i'd prefer them to be clear about what they're saying - and i had no sense that mr stephens was, at all..
I think the reservations you had were encompassed under the imperfection of the play, but the energy, the spirit of enquiry, the fire in the belly and all the other things that have made the Royal Court great in the past were there in abundance. It wasn't 'On the Shore of the World', but it wasn't trying to be.

Better a thousand imperfect Motortowns than a single O Go My Man. And if we're talking imperfect, was The Winterling even finished?
I think it was fairly clear what was going on with The Winterling. Churchill pulled Cloud 9 and with not very long to go they called in a commission they'd put out to Butterworth who then wrote the play in, I would guess, a week, and it didn't have time to get much beyond that first draft.

Fair play to Jez, though, it's a pretty good first draft, but it's exactly the sort of writing that anyone decent can do at the drop of a hat. The slightly surreal, very vivid, Pinteresque anecdote about fighting a badger, etc. Any writer can do it (except maybe Judy Upton). It's a classic first draft: The writing is all flash fires; characters go nowhere, the energy in the writing overrides narrative coherence, there's a big structural decision made (probably during the writing, not before it) which has yet to be fully worked out; there are stray shreds of mythical idea which would be developed in a subsequent draft. It would have been good if it had been given longer because maybe a better play could have been written. But the timing wasn't Jez's fault.

Also did anyone notice that it's possible to describe The Winterling - in some detail - in exactly the same terms as The Night Heron? Two guys are in a desolate country farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, one younger, one older, there are curious visitors, including an eccentric young woman, there are secrets in the past to be revealed and a natural landscape that offers images of transcendence as well as danger, etc...
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