Theatre in Wales

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Misjudged Format, Wrong People, Imbalance Against Women

Radio Arts Feature

Front Row: Royal Court at Sixty Years , Radio 4 & iPlayer , June 3, 2016
Radio Arts Feature by Front Row: Royal Court at Sixty Years “Front Row” is a useful programme, there at seven-fifteen every evening. Across the arts it has an edge in its coverage of film and TV. The reason is simple. Its reviewers don’t shift much from the capital. The BBC- and it is admirable and essential- strains and tries its best but it is pretty much the London Broadcasting Corporation. But then that is Britain. The Front Row reviewers will go to Margate to see an exhibition. But come a significant Hepworth retrospective at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park no-one is going to go and actually witness the work. They will do a feature with a spokesperson telephone call-in. For the lovely Bretton Park read Merthyr. The London Broadcasting Corp is never going to go to Merthyr.

The Royal Court is of course right there, a few tube stops away, and it deserves the coverage. It is an institution of importance, the ultimate marker that every writer aspires to- except David Greig but then he has a capital city that takes pride in new writing. Tim Price and Gary Owen have made it there in the last two years. This feature to mark its sixty years, broadcast from the theatre’s auditorium on the Spring Bank Holiday, is disappointing then. The disappointment is not incidental; it is baked into the programme’s architecture.

It has been conceived not as a survey and review but as an event in front of a live audience. Its thirty minutes are interspersed with actors’ reading from a few texts. The selection from the vast corpus of the Royal Court’s work is okay. Jez Butterworth would have been better represented by Johnny Byron than “Mojo.” But it is bitty and does little for a radio audience.

The interviewing kicks off curiously. To Vicky Featherstone “do you have an obligation to stage new writing? Is it part of the job spec?” Er…haven’t we tuned into a celebration of what is probably the world’s centre for new drama? The critic chosen is Michael Billington. Now the Michael is the most formidable authority on classic theatre in Britain but the epicentres of new work are not his territory. When asked to name some venues for new writing an unlikely theatre on the coast causes Simon Stephens to interrupt brusquely “How often do you leave London?” The answer is “about once a week”. Well, if that is correct, and it bears no relation to the Guardian’s own record, the most regular destination must be Stratford.

For a writer the relationship the Royal Court offers is one of esteem and respect. Roy Williams recalls the response he received for a first play. It was not good at all, he says, but he remembers “a very nice letter” with the encouragement “you've got skill and talent.” The theatre has currently a literary manager in Chris Campbell, an occasional visitor to Cardiff, of bottomless knowledge and sympathy. It is a rare writer who gets rich from theatre but they get something else from the Royal Court, respect.

The programme wanders somewhat. The theme of writers being drawn to theatre is posed to a young writer in the audience. “Why do you want to write for theatre? Why not for television or the big screen?” asks the interviewer. “Actually I wanted to write for movies” says the writer “but knew I wouldn't be accepted with my inexperience. So I came here instead.” Whoops.

The conversation with Vicky Featherstone turns of all things to property prices. She corrects the interviewer on house prices, seven or eight million not a modest two is the going house price hereabouts. It is an irrelevance anyhow. Chelsea and the Peter Jones crowd never did theatre, still less the new generation of Asian metal magnates and the rest of the world’s flight capital riff-raff.

The gaps in the coverage are threefold. One is a small strand for the Royal Court but it is nonetheless significant. It has brought over the best of America's drama for premieres in Sloane Square. In olden days it was Mamet or Shawn with plays like “Oleanna” and “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” More recently it has been Bruce Norris with “Clybourne Park”, now widely seen, including at RWCMD.

The second strand of real significance is the Royal Court’s record of staging non-white voices. It goes back a long way, at least to “Borderline” and that was in 1981. Only the Door in Birmingham- unmentioned in the programme as a fulcrum for new work- may have done more. By way of digression Cardiff theatre’s record of seeking out non-white voices is an ignoble one. As a non-Cardiff resident I will happily make correction but the last production in my reckoning, and it went to London, was “Giant Steps” and that was in 1998.

The last omission in the programme is the Royal Court and women. The staged readings were all from male writers with the exception of Kate Ashfield and “Blasted.” Anya Reiss, Lucy Prebble, Rachel de la Haye, and Polly Stenham are maybe too recent in their careers to make mention. Michael Billington to his credit attention draws attention to Caryl Churchill but of Timberlake Wertenbaker not a word. “Front Row” means well but in truth the format and design mean that an awful lot that matters has been left out.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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