Royal Court Theatre

Royal Court Theatre

Coordinates: 51°29′33″N 0°09′24″W / 51.492583°N 0.156583°W / 51.492583; -0.156583

Royal Court Theatre

The Royal Court Theatre at dusk in 2007
Address Sloane Square
City London-Kensington and Chelsea
Designation Grade II listed
Owned by English Stage Company
Capacity Theatre Downstairs 380
Theatre Upstairs 85
Type non-commercial theatre
Opened 1870
Rebuilt 1888 Walter Emden and Bertie Crewe
2000 Haworth Tompkins
Previous names 1870 New Chelsea Theatre
1871 Belgravia Theatre
Production Red Bud/Tribes

The Royal Court Theatre is a non-commercial theatre on Sloane Square, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is noted for its contributions to modern theatre. In 1956 it was acquired by and is home to a resident company, the English Stage Company.



The first theatre

The first theatre on Lower George Street, off Sloane Square, was the converted Nonconformist Ranelagh Chapel, opened as a theatre in 1870 under the name The New Chelsea Theatre. Marie Litton became its manager in 1871, hiring Walter Emden to remodel the interior, and it was renamed the Court Theatre.[1]

Scene from The Happy Land, showing the scandalous impersonation of Gladstone, Lowe, and Ayrton

Several of W. S. Gilbert's early plays were staged here, including Randall's Thumb, Creatures of Impulse (with music by Alberto Randegger), Great Expectations (adapted from the Dickens novel), and On Guard (all in 1871); The Happy Land (1873, with Gilbert Abbott à Beckett; Gilbert's most controversial play); The Wedding March, translated from Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie by Eugène Marin Labiche (1873); The Blue-Legged Lady, translated from La Dame aux Jambes d'Azur by Labiche and Marc-Michel (1874); and Broken Hearts (1875). By 1878, management of the theatre was shared by John Hare and W. H. Kendal.[2]

Further alterations were made in 1882 by Alexander Peebles, after which its capacity was 728 (including stalls and boxes, dress circle and balcony, amphitheatre, and gallery).[3] After that, Arthur Cecil (who had joined the theatre's company in 1881) was co-manager of the theatre with John Clayton.[4] Among other works, they produced a series of Arthur Wing Pinero's farces, including The Rector, The Magistrate (1885), The Schoolmistress (1886), and Dandy Dick (1887), among others.[5] The theatre closed on 22 July 1887 and was demolished.[6]

The current theatre

The present building was built on the east side of Sloane Square, replacing the earlier building, and opened on 24 September 1888 as the New Court Theatre. It was designed by Walter Emden and Bertie Crewe, constructed of fine red brick, moulded brick, and a stone facade in free Italianate style. It had a capacity of 841 in stalls, dress circle, amphitheatre, and gallery.

Cecil and Clayton had yielded management of the theatre to Mrs. John Wood and Arthur Chudleigh in 1887, although Cecil continued acting in their company (and others) until 1895.[4] The first production at the new theatre was a play by Sydney Grundy called Mamma, starring Mrs. John Wood and John Hare, with Arthur Cecil and Eric Lewis.[7]

Harley Granville-Barker managed the theatre for the first few years of the 20th century, and many of George Bernard Shaw's plays were produced in the early years of the century at the Royal Court. It ceased to be used as a theatre in 1932 but was used as a cinema from 1935 to 1940, until World War II bomb damage closed it.[8]

The interior was reconstructed by Robert Cromie, when the number of seats was decreased to fewer than 500. The theatre re-opened in 1952.[9] George Devine became artistic director and opened the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1956 as a subsidised theatre producing new British and foreign plays, together with some classical revivals.[10] Devine aimed to create a writers' theatre, seeking to discover new writers and produce serious contemporary works, often becoming involved in issues of censorship. He produced John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in 1956, which was later seen as the starting point of modern British drama.

Besides Osborne, Devine premiered works by Arnold Wesker, John Arden, Ann Jellicoe and N. F. Simpson. Subsequent Artistic Directors of the Royal Court premiered work by Christopher Hampton, Athol Fugard, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, Hanif Kureishi, Sarah Daniels, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Martin McDonagh, Simon Stephens, Leo Butler, and Edward Bond. Early seasons included new international plays by Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Marguerite Duras. In addition to the 400-seat proscenium arch Theatre Downstairs, the studio Theatre Upstairs was opened in 1969, at the time a 63-seat facility[11].[8] The Rocky Horror Show premiered there in 1973.

Though the main auditorium and the façade were attractive, the remainder of the building provided poor facilities for both audience and performers, and the stalls and understage often flooded throughout the 20th century. By the early 1990s, the theatre had deteriorated dangerously and was threatened with closure in 1995. The Royal Court received a grant of £16.2 million from the National Lottery and the Arts Council for redevelopment, and beginning in 1996, under the artistic directorship of Stephen Daldry, it was completely rebuilt, except for the façade and the intimate auditorium. The architects for this were Haworth Tompkins. The theatre reopened in February 2000, with the 380-seat Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, and the 85-seat studio theatre, now the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Since 1994, a new generation of playwrights debuting at the theatre has included Joe Penhall, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Roy Williams amongst others.

The theatre was Grade II listed in June 1972.[12]

Since 2007, the theatre's Artistic Director has been Dominic Cooke; the Associate Director is Sacha Wares and the deputy artistic director is Jeremy Herrin. Previous Artistic Directors include Ian Rickson (1998 – 2006), Stephen Daldry, Max Stafford-Clark, Stuart Burge, Robert Kidd, Nicholas Wright, Oscar Lewenstein, Lindsay Anderson, Anthony Page, William Gaskill and George Devine. Young writers (between 18 and 25) can apply to the Young Writers' Programme, which seeks to promote works by these young writers.

Over the last decade, the Royal Court has placed a renewed emphasis on the development and production of international work. By 1993, the British Council had begun its support of the International Residency programme (which started in 1989 as the Royal Court International Summer School) and by early 1996 a department solely dedicated to international work had been created. A creative dialogue now exists between innovative theatre writers and practitioners in many different countries including Brazil, Cuba, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Palestine, Romania, Russia, Spain, Syria and Uganda. Many of these projects are supported by the British Council and more recently by the Genesis Foundation, who also support the production of international plays. The International Department has been the recipient of a number of awards including the 1999 International Theatre Institute award. [1]

The English Stage Company also attends international festivals, in May 2008 presenting The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg at the "Contact International Theatre Festival" in Poland.[13]


Productions 2008 - Aug 2011

Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

Jerwood Theatre Upstairs

  • The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner - 24/06/2011 - 06/08/2011
  • The Acid Test by Anya Reiss - 13/05/2011 - 11/06/2011
  • Remembrance Day by Aleksey Scherbak, translated by Rory Mullarky - 18/03/2011 - 16/04/2011
  • Our Private Life by Pedro Miguel Rozo - 11/02/2011 - 13/03/2011
  • Kin by E.V Crowe - 19/11/2010 - 23/12/2010
  • Red Bud by Brett Neveu - 21/10/2010 - 13/11/2010
  • Wanderlust by Nick Payne - 09/09/2010 - 09/10/2010
  • Spur of the Moment by Anya Reiss - 14/07/2010 - 21/08/2010
  • Ingredient X by Nick Grosso - 20/05/2010 - 19/06/2010
  • The Empire by DC Moore - 31/03/2010 - 08/05/2010
  • Disconnect by Anupama Chandrasekhar - 17/02/2010 - 20/03/2010
  • Cock by Mike Bartlett - 13/11/2009 - 19/12/2009
  • The Author by Tim Crouch - 23/09/2009 - 24/10/2009
  • Grasses of a Thousand Colours by Wallace Shawn - 12/05/2009 - 27/06/2009
  • Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham - 28/03/2009 - 02/05/2009
  • A Miracle by Molly Davies - 13/03/2009 - 21/03/2009
  • Shades by Alia Bano - 28/01/2009 - 21/02/2009
  • The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell - 21/11/2008 - 20/12/2008
  • Faces In The Crowd by Leo Butler - 18/10/2008 - 08/11/2008
  • The Girlfriend Experience by Alecky Blythe - 18/09/2008- 11/10/2008
  • Relocated by Anthony Neilson - 06/06/2008 - 05/07/2008
  • Oxford Street by Levi David Addai - 02/05/2008- 31/05/2008
  • Bliss by Oliver Choiniere - 28/03/2008- 26/04/2008
  • Scarborough by Fiona Evans - 07/02/2008 - 15/03/2008

Other spaces around the Royal Court

  • Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat by Mark Ravenhill - 08/04/2008- 19/04/2008
  • Contractions by Mike Bartlett - 29/05/2008 - 14/06/2008
  • The Caravan by Liam O'Driscoll, Mimi Poskitt and Ben Freedman - 10/02/2009- 28/02/2009

Controversy over Seven Jewish Children

Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children opened at the theatre in February 2009. Many Jewish leaders and journalists have criticised Seven Jewish Children as antisemitic,[14][15][16][17] contending that it violates the rule that "a play that is critical of, and entirely populated by, characters from one community, can be defended only if it is written by a member of that community".[18] Further, Associate Director Ramin Gray has been accused of hypocrisy, as he is reported to have stated that he would be reluctant to stage a play critical of Islam.[19][20]

The Guardian's chief critic described the play as "a heartfelt lamentation for the future generations".[21] The paper contended that the play, though controversial, is not antisemitic,[22] yet Seven Jewish Children was viewed by another Guardian writer as historically inaccurate and harshly critical of Jews.[23] Jonathan Hoffman, co-vice chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, called the play "a libellous and despicable demonisation of Israeli parents and grandparents" and expressed fear that it would "stoke the fires of antisemitism". He added that the play is a modern blood libel drawing on old anti-Semitic myths.[14] Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly also calls the play a blood libel.[15] Columnist Melanie Phillips wrote that the play is "An open vilification of the Jewish people... drawing upon an atavistic hatred of the Jews" and called it "Open incitement to hatred".[14] The New York Times wrote that the play "at times paints heartless images of Israelis."[16]

In reply, the Royal Court issued the following statement:

"Some concerns have been raised that the Royal Court's production of Seven Jewish Children, by Caryl Churchill is anti-Semitic. We categorically reject that accusation.... While Seven Jewish Children is undoubtedly critical of the policies of the state of Israel, there is no suggestion that this should be read as a criticism of Jewish people.... In keeping with its philosophy, the Royal Court Theatre presents a multiplicity of viewpoints. The Stone, which is currently running... asks very difficult questions about the refusal of some modern Germans to accept their ancestors' complicity in Nazi atrocities. Shades, currently in our smaller studio theatre... explores issues of tolerance in the [London] Muslim community."[20]

Digital Theatre

The Royal Court was one of the launch organisations for Digital Theatre, a project which makes theatre productions available in video download form. The first performance filmed and released was Over There'.[24]


  1. ^ Some sources claim that it was called the "Belgravia" Theatre, but all of W. S. Gilbert's pieces presented at the theatre were publicised as playing at the "Court Theatre"
  2. ^ Ainger, p. 168
  3. ^ Social history: Social and cultural activities, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 12: Chelsea (2004), pp. 166-76. Date accessed: 22 March 2007.
  4. ^ a b Knight, Joseph, rev. Nilanjana Banerji. "Cecil, Arthur (1843–1896)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 7 October 2008, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4974
  5. ^ Profile of the theatre and other Victorian theatres
  6. ^ Howard, London Theatres, p. 54.
  7. ^ "New Court Theatre", The Times, 25 September 1888, p. 9
  8. ^ a b Social history
  9. ^ Mackintosh and Sell, Curtains!!!, p. 155. See Plate 15.
  10. ^ Royal Court Theatre
  11. ^ 63 seat Theatre Upstairs
  12. ^ English Heritage listing details accessed 28 Apr 2007
  13. ^ Contact International Theatre Festival 2008 accessed 24 May 2008
  14. ^ a b c Symons, Leon. "Outrage over 'demonising' play for Gaza," The Jewish Chronicle, 12 February 2009
  15. ^ a b Goldberg, Jeffrey. "The Royal Court Theatre's Blood Libel", Atlantic Monthly 9 February 2009
  16. ^ a b Healy, Patrick. "Workshop May Present Play Critical of Israel", The New York Times, 17 February 2009
  17. ^ "The Stone and Seven Jewish Children", The Sunday Times, 15 February 2009
  18. ^ Nathan, John. "Seven Jewish Children", The Jewish Chronicle, 12 February 2009
  19. ^ Whittle, Peter. "Islam: The Silence of the Arts; The arts are increasingly censoring themselves when it comes to Islam," New Culture Forum, 2007
  20. ^ a b Beckford, Martin. "Prominent Jews accuse Royal Court play of demonising Israelis", The Telegraph, 18 February 2009
  21. ^ "Guardian review"
  22. ^ "Is Seven Jewish Children anti-semitic?"
  23. ^ Romain, Jonathan. "Selective bravery is not very brave", The Guardian, 20 February 2009. Quote: "...the same standards must apply to all faiths".
  24. ^ "Leading theatres launch downloadable shows". Official London Theatre Guide. Retrieved 2010-02-15. 


  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan – A Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195147693. 
  • Bergan, Ronald (1992). The Great Theatres of London: An Illustrated Companion. London: Trafalgar Square Publishing. ISBN 1-85375-057-3. 
  • Earl, John; Michael Sell (2000). Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950. Theatres Trust. pp. 135–36. ISBN 0-7136-5688-3. 
  • MacCarthy, Desmond (1907). The Court Theatre 1904-1907 A Commentary and Criticism. London: A. H. Bullen. 
  • Roberts, Philip (1999). The Royal Court Theatre and the modern stage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47962-2. 
  • History of the theatre
  • Profile of the theatre and other Victorian theatres
  • Napoleon, Davi (1991). Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater. Iowa State University Press. ISBN 0-8138-1713-7.  (Includes a detailed comparison of the Royal Court and a theater in New York City that was influenced by it; also includes discussion of Royal Court plays that the Chelsea presented, including Saved, Total Eclipse, and The Contractor)

External links

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