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A renaissance at the Royal Court Theatre? After a dismal run the future finally looks bright

 (Daniel Lynch)
(Daniel Lynch)

Seen anything good at the Royal Court recently? In recent years, ask that to the theatregoer in your life and the question would probably elicit a wince. But that is all about to change.

Yesterday marked the start of new era. New artistic director David Byrne (no not the bloke from Talking Heads – that really would have been a coup) launched his first season and, what was this? It was actually really exciting.

His announcement of established theatremakers rubbing shoulders exciting writers, and all making their debut at the Sloane Square venue, sparked real buzz – something that had been missing for the venue’s recent announcements.

Among the highlights is Sir Nicholas Hytner, who brilliantly led the National Theatre for more than a decade, directing John Lithgow as Roald Dahl in Giant, a play about a Jewish publisher trying to navigate the fall out of the author’s antisemitic outbursts in the press.

Ben Whishaw is returning to the London stage for the first time since before Covid, opposite House of the Dragon’s Emma D’Arcy and The Girl Before’s Kayla Meikle in a new adaptation of acclaimed book Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Seeing these performers in the gloriously intimate auditorium of the Court will be a treat – and getting tickets will clearly be a bunfight.

Clockwise from left: Ben Whishaw, Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle in the artwork for Bluets
Clockwise from left: Ben Whishaw, Emma D’Arcy and Kayla Meikle in the artwork for Bluets

But I’m also excited about the new voices coming through. Do I want to see Dugsi Dayz, a comedy about four young British-Somali girls stuck in detention at Mosque, inspired by The Breakfast Club? Hell yes. Then there’s The Bounds about a medieval football game and BRACE BRACE, looking at the aftermath of a plane hijacking. They sound great.

At the launch, Byrne said, “More than just a season, this is a statement of intent for what’s to come: a new generation of bold voices with big, messy stories to tell; world renowned artists rubbing alongside insurgent new talent, igniting some unmissable theatre on our stages.”

Outside the theatre world, Byrne is not well known. Inside it, he is praised as someone who not only developed vast numbers of artists and gave them the space to make great work, he took a fringe theatre called the New Diorama and started pumping out shows that people actually wanted to see and made them hits.

It is testament to his leadership, talent spotting and development skills that two works that developed at his 80-seat venue are currently in the West End, packing the audiences in: Operation Mincemeat and For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy. Both are stunning and if you haven’t seen them, book now.

The hope is that Byrne can transfer those skills to the Royal Court. This is a difficult time for subsidised theatre. Funding has stood still for a decade as costs have spiralled. The West End may be packing them in, but venues given the job of putting on new work are coming back more slowly. Audiences aren’t taking the risks they used to.

John Lithgow as Roald Dahl in the artwork for Giant
John Lithgow as Roald Dahl in the artwork for Giant

And the Court itself is having a tough time. Its recent accounts revealed that it would have to find new business models to sustain itself, adding “the business model that has supported the right to fail alongside success is no longer sustainable”. Sounds prudent, but for a venue that puts on new writing, there will inevitably be a fair share of duds to go along with the successes, it’s the nature of the beast.

So Byrne comes into an institution that is under pressure, but art often thrives in adversity, and the new artistic director is just the person for tackling problems in new, unusual ways.

Under Vicky Featherstone’s decade-long leadership the Court absolutely supported and developed exciting voices, and there were some great plays from The Ferryman in 2017 to Seven Methods of Killing Kyle Jenner, but in recent years the message seemed to have overtaken the work. It became increasingly less a fun night in the theatre, and more an unfocused lecture or a ticking off.

The Royal Court is a vital theatre in London’s cultural life. It has a rich history, but we can’t keep banging on about the Angry Young Men of the Fifties, or the searing voices to emerge in the Nineties from Sarah Kane to Jez Butterworth.

It’s time to forge a new generation that look at life in 2024, respond to it and shape it themselves, who will then feed the rest of Theatreland as well as TV, film and beyond. It has never been more vital.

So is this a renaissance at the Royal Court? it may be too early to tell but the signs are positive, and I’m certainly looking forward to this exciting first season of work.

Nick Clark is The Evening Standard’s Deputy Culture Editor