CodeDS/UK/305
Person NameThe Royal Court Theatre; 1956-
Dates1956-
ActivityOn 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 is Britain's first national theatre company, and has held firm to its vision of being a writerstheatre. 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 A Patriot for Me, and Edward Bond Saved and Early Morning ). These battles led to the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain Office in 1968.
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 include 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.
Max Stafford-Clark became Artistic Director in 1979 and steered the Royal Court throughout 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 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 is 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. When the Royal Court was forced to close for rebuilding in 1997, they took this message with them to the heart of the West End.
The Royal Court took over two West End theatres. The Theatre Downstairs found a home at the Duke of York's on St Martin's Lane and the Theatre Upstairs moved in to 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 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 leads a Royal Court which produces more new plays than any other theatre in Britain. Plays by Caryl Churchill, Terry Johnson and David Hare sit side by side with work from young playwrights such as Simon Stephens, Roy Williams and Leo Butler. The Young Writers Festival and International Season 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 later, that theatre stands at the centre of a vigorous, renewed culture of playwriting.
ARTISTIC DIRECTORS
1956 The English Stage Company moved into the Royal Court under George Devine and Tony Richardson (first production The Mulberry Bush by Angus Wilson 2 April)
1956 John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (8 May)
1965 - 1972 William Gaskill
1969 Joined by Lindsay Anderson and Anthony Page
1969 Theatre Upstairs opened
1972 - 1975 Oscar Lewenstein
1975 - 1977 Robert Kidd and Nicholas Wright
1977 - 1979 Stuart Burge
1979 - 1992 Max Stafford-Clark
1992 - 1998 Stephen Daldry
1998 - 2006 Ian Rickson
2007 Dominic Cooke


Corporate NameThe Royal Court Theatre
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