If there were an Eddie the Eagle award for theatre — to recognise large reputations built on minuscule achievements — it would go to the Royal Court. Sixty years ago the English Stage Company arrived at ‘the Court’ determined to amaze the world with a new generation of thrusting young geniuses.
It won instant notoriety with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. This sour bedsit melodrama earned the noisy support of a cabal of reviewers led by Kenneth Tynan who used it to advertise their powers of artistic foresight. Osborne’s next play, The Entertainer, was a cheerless and cumbersome allegory of Britain’s imperial decline, which lacked even the merit of prophecy. It was just a dramatised rehash of the previous decade’s headlines. But the critics were not about to surrender their new-won status as oracles and they hailed it as an entirely original dramatic form, the state-of-the-nation play.
The Court has been looking for new specimens ever since. The idea rests on the assumption that the ‘nation’ is a doddery, half-deaf old patriarch who needs to have his sins recounted to him by smart alecs shouting a bit too loud. In the 1950s that may have been true but by the 1960s the old dodderer had been reborn as a hip young groover leading a worldwide revolution in music and fashion. At this point the state-of-the-nation play should have expired but for literary scribblers it was too valuable a theory to abandon altogether so they just plugged the old boy into a life-support machine and kept him going. The motor wheezes on to this day.
Over the decades the Court has blooded countless young writers who are celebrated by the theatrical elite but whose names mean zilch to the general public. And it continues to ape the stale conventions laid down six decades ago. The Court favours fashionable controversy and it adores plays that set out to ‘provoke debate’ at the restaurant afterwards even though, as we all know, this merely licenses the gobbiest member of the party to bore the rest with his garden-shed perspective on history.
The current leadership doggedly pursues this arid ritual but on a worldwide canvas. The boss, Vicky Featherstone, stages dramas that illuminate neglected injustices in every corner of the globe, and her artistic programme reads like a commissioning long-list for Dispatches or Panorama. There is no tyranny, no epidemic, no atrocity and no genocide so remote or obscure that it cannot be transformed into a two-hour wrist-slasher to keep the angst-ridden billionaires of Belgravia awake at night.
But the Court’s commitment to box-office poison has, on one famous occasion, been circumvented successfully. The Rocky Horror Show premièred in the studio space in 1973. This camp slice of mock-Gothic escapism is probably the Court’s least characteristic production. It’s eccentric, irreverent, very silly, great fun and wildly popular. It promotes no cause, it rallies no activists, and it has never inspired a New Statesman thinkpiece or an exchange of letters in the Guardian. Nor is it ever associated with the Royal Court. That says it all.