The Royal Court is known for putting the names of emerging playwrights up in lights for the first time, but is the voltage now dimming for Britain’s best known path into theatre writing? The Royal Court’s literary department is struggling to survive as the venue on London’s Sloane Square, renowned for staging risk-taking shows over 60 years, makes swingeing cuts in order to keep going.
“As a younger writer, all I wanted was to have a play on at that theatre, so I’d like other new writers to have the same chance,” said Timberlake Wertenbaker, whose acclaimed 1988 play Our Country’s Good was first staged at the Royal Court. “It would be a disaster if we lost this theatre though … so I understand that preserving the venue is the main thing.”
In recent decades, the Royal Court helped establish the early careers of writers such as Wole Soyinka, Mark Ravenhill, Lucy Prebble, Joe Penhall, Polly Stenham, Jack Thorne and the late Sarah Kane. Its literary department was dedicated to encouraging new work, with a Young Writers’ Programme to develop fresh voices. That is now under threat because a voluntary redundancy drive has not yet made enough cost reductions.
Playwrights are calling for the scheme to be protected, though many, including Wertenbaker, are careful not to criticise the theatre’s artistic director, David Byrne, appointed last July, who is thought to want to go on focusing on new work. Speaking to actors’ journal the Stage, playwrights David Eldridge and Roy Williams have both warned writers “not to jump the gun” in reaction to the cuts.
But news that the literary department is in peril worries Ellie Peers, general secretary of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, who said last week that its loss would raise “serious questions”. The guild now wants reassurances from the theatre and Arts Council England.
“What does this mean for other theatres, for regional theatre and for the next generation of playwrights?” said Peers. “At a time of global instability, where drama has a vital role in holding a mirror to our collective concerns, who else will challenge political and social orthodoxies? It is essential for the theatre-writing ecosystem that the Royal Court continues to commission and develop single-voice playwrights and new works.”
The theatre’s latest production, Cowbois by Charlie Josephine, has been widely praised by reviewers. But last year the theatre management was criticised for programming a commercially driven season of standup comedy. The Royal Court was contacted for comment.