I normally avoid press conferences. They disrupt a critic’s day and are a clunky way of providing information that easily could be sent by email or letter. But I made an exception for the Royal Court’s announcement of its 50th birthday plans. Not just because of the prospect of bacon butties at 9.30am in Sloane Square but because the Royal Court occupies a peculiar place in my affections and remains for me the most vital theatre in London.
It’s partly a generational thing. I readily confess I was not present at the famous first night of Look Back in Anger on 8 May 1956 – I was doing my school homework at the time. But I became fanatically obsessed with John Osborne and the ‘Angry Young Man’ phenomenon. So much so that I made a Saturday night pilgrimage from the Midlands to Sloane Square in 1957 to see Look Back; I remember standing on the theatre steps gazing at the faces of people emerging from the five o’clock matinee to see if they had been transformed by the experience!
Naïve perhaps. But it’s a measure of the hold the Royal Court had on my young imagination. When I came to London in 1964, I even got a job reading scripts for the Court for two pounds a time. One day, however, I was summoned by Tom Osborn, the literary manager, and told that George Devine thought my reports read too much like theatre reviews.
Even if my working relationship with the Court was brutally severed, I always regarded that battered old redbrick building with special affection. I can’t say the affection was invariably reciprocated. When Lindsay Anderson became joint artistic director in 1969, he seemed to have a special dislike of my writing: “spare us any more of your dreary reviews”, ran one particular brusque Anderson telegram. Oscar Lewenstein, who I felt ran a slightly cautious, caretaker regime in the early 1970s, also returned my criticism with interest. In the present, polite era, people tend to forget the Court’s historic hatred of critics. Who now recalls that Anderson nearly lost the theatre its grant by his attempt to ban the Spectator’s Hilary Spurling?
All that is long ago. What matters is that the Royal Court for 50 years has stood by its writers and given us many unforgettable evenings of theatre: Osborne’s The Entertainer, Bond’s Saved, Whitehead’s Alpha Beta, Storey’s Home, Churchill’s Top Girls, Johnson’s Insignificance, McPherson’s The Weir and, of course, Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Its output has also been more varied than many people remember. It was thanks to Peter Gill that DH Lawrence’s working-class dramas were rescued from obscurity. And it was at the Theatre Upstairs in 1973 that The Rocky Horror Show first pitched camp before putting a heavily-jewelled girdle round about the earth.
But is the Royal Court still necessary at a time when new play venues have proliferated? I would say yes, more than ever. Though it may no longer have a monopoly, it still offers writers the challenge of filling a 400-seat theatre and escaping from the tyranny of tiny-ness. Too many new plays these days offer us a 90-minute fragment of experience: a dilemma rather than a drama, an isolated crisis rather than an exploration of an historical context. And, even if the Court has occasionally succumbed to the short-play syndrome, it was cheering this autumn to find Richard Bean’s Harvest occupying three hours and reminding us of the lost pleasures of character-development.
The Court, because of its size, its site and its history, also enjoys another unique asset – it can attract big stars. Crowd-pulling names and new writers is an unbeatable alliance. Over the years Olivier, Ashcroft, Gielgud, Richardson, Finney and Rigg have all lent their lustre to new work. Even if at times one has detected a puritanical objection to stars, I hope Ian Rickson pulls out all the stops for the 50th birthday. I’d give a lot to see Judi Dench or Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen or Simon Russell Beale turning up in Sloane Square.
That said, if the Court is still truly needed, it’s not because of stars, it’s because of its international outlook. People forget that part of George Devine’s original plan was not just to do new British plays but to reflect what was happening around Europe: Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco and Sartre were a vital part of the early years. Today the Court has widened its global brief. Elyse Dodgson and her team travel the world assisting local projects. And that debt has been repaid in countless seasons of international work in the Theatre Upstairs which don’t always get the attention they deserve in our parochial press.
Life, in short, would be unthinkable without the Royal Court. And, while we often take it for granted, others don’t. In the bleak, Thatcherite Eighties, I was at a new play festival in Louisville, Kentucky when the word came that the Court was threatened by the withdrawal of its Arts Council grant. Instantly, incredulous members of the international theatre community drew up a petition to be despatched forthwith to London. At that moment, I realised the Royal Court wasn’t simply an icon of British life and part of my own sentimental memories. It was – and still is – one of the few indispensable theatres in the world.