Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Sponsor or be damned

Patrick Connellan reviews the history of one of London's radical theatres

After some hiccups the newly refurbished Royal Court Theatre has reopened in London's Sloane Square. For most of its 45 years it has been a radical voice of the modern playwright.

After the war it was recognised by some that British theatre was, in Peter Brook's words, 'deadly theatre'. George Devine, the initiator and first director of the Court, said in 1948 that 'England needed a theatre that presented a whole range of contemporary drama', and that 'a producer must know his time and be in touch with it--a "popular art"--not for a few special intellectuals'. The second play produced at the newly acquired Court illustrated his vision. It was the groundbreaking Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. This was a new form of drama presenting 'real' people in 'real' situations. It depicts a radical man straightjacketed by the conservatism of his time. Just a glimpse of the array of writers working at the Court in its early days reveals the departure it was making from the rest of theatre. As well as Osborne we see John Arden, Arnold Wesker, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht.

Bill Gaskill reaffirmed the Court's reputation for being anti-establishment with his programme in 1965 and was helped in this task by the controversy surrounding Edward Bond's play Saved. The then lord chamberlain attempted to get an outright ban on the play, being appalled at its language and the infamous stoning of a baby scene. The Court stood firm against such censorship and performed the play anyway. This cemented the theatre in its purpose.

The late 1960s saw a showdown between those who wanted a more 'socialist' theatre, led by the ideas of David Hare and Edward Bond, and others (the old guard) who looked to a humanist approach. The humanists won the day, leading to a sterility of work in the early 1970s despite the excitement of the class struggle raging around them--a case of theatre lagging behind events. There were three Athol Fugard plays from South Africa, but what typifies this period is the presenting of the ridiculously camp musical The Rocky Horror Show. The Court fared artistically better in the mid-1970s (catching up with the mood in society) with plays from Hare and Bond, and Caryl Churchill's recently revived Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

The Labour government of the late 1970s brought financial crisis to the Court (a crisis that has never disappeared), which precipitated a battle for control of the theatre. Hare, Churchill and some other artists wanted to see a workers' theatre where the people who created the work were in control. They were narrowly voted down by the Court's council in favour of a management structure to deal with the financial deficit.

Despite the ideological backlash from Thatcher the Court managed to produce some of its best and most political work in the early 1980s, notably Churchill's brilliant Top Girls, which criticises the career woman who tramples over her sisters to get to the top. Howard Brenton's Short Sharp Shock was a savage attack on Thatcherism, and Trevor Griffith warned against fascism in Oi for England. Moreover, the Court's image of radicalism was enhanced by the controversy surrounding the play Operation Bad Apple, which closely paralleled an ongoing trial of Metropolitan Police accused of corruption.

In the mid-1980s the Tories launched an attack on theatre subsidy. Head of the Arts Council William Rees-Mogg, a Tory, believed subsidy 'can weaken the sinews of self help'--a clear indication that theatre should be thrown to the mercy of the marketplace. They only partially succeeded in this aim. The story of the Court from then on became about reducing grants, and pressure to fundraise and find sponsorship. This inevitably impacted on artistic decisions.

The situation was exacerbated by the most shameful episode in the Court's history, when the play Perdition, by Jim Allen, was cancelled two days before the first performance. Allen's play was a courtroom battle based on sound historical evidence that suggests wealthy Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in expelling Hungarian Jews in 1944 in return for a promise of a 'homeland'. Zionists lobbied the media and picketed the Royal Court, claiming that Allen's play was anti-Semitic. Max Stafford-Clarke, the then artistic director, caved in and effectively censored the play. There was a haemorrhaging of support for the Court. Soon afterwards they ran into trouble again--this time with the issue of sponsorship. Churchill's play Serious Money--which was an attack on City greed--had transferred to the Wyndhams Theatre. Ironically, City sponsors had made block bookings to see the play and made speeches calling for greater sponsorship from the stage.

Churchill was appalled and resigned from the Court's council. She again criticised the Court for accepting money from Barclays Bank. She warned, 'The theatre is going in one direction and my plays in another.' The Court had some commercial successes in the late 1980s. The most noteworthy play was Road by Jim Cartwright. It brilliantly summed up the bleakness of the Thatcher years and the alienation, but there was no hope and no fight.

The 1990s were all about expansion of the theatre and doubling the output under Stephen Daldry. The quality of the writing was improving, but not always the content. For example, Mamets's Oleanna was well written but macho backward nonsense.

The work improved during this time with plays such as Hysteria, Babies, Mojo, and the excellent but controversial Blasted, by the late Sarah Kane. She was unfairly savaged by the press for a play that Bond described as 'the best play in London'. Recent years have seen a renaissance in new writing, and not just at the Court. There has been fine work done at the Bush, Finborough Arms, Battersea and others by mostly young writers who are beginning to intellectually grapple with the contradictions thrown up by capitalism--a greater awareness of the world we live in. Outside of London new writing can be seen at The Door at Birmingham Rep, which is solely dedicated to new work. This is all against the continuing crisis in funding. It may look as though the arts are doing well when we see buildings going up, as at the Court, but will there be money to fund the actual work inside? That fight with Labour continues.

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