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Queen Victoria

A profile of the woman making history at the Royal Court theatre in London

Isabel Lloyd | July/August 2015

It begins with eight blue plastic chairs. There’s nothing special about the chairs – they’re the kind you’ll find in any waiting room or community hall. What lifts them out of the ordinary is where they are: lined up on the main stage of the Royal Court in London, one of the world’s leading theatres for new writing. It’s September 2013, and, outside, the plane trees of Sloane Square are turning their thoughts towards autumn. Inside, the chairs wait for the lights to go up on “The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas”, the first play, in the first season, of the Royal Court’s first female artistic director.

She, meanwhile, is upstairs in her small, cluttered office, and musing on murder. “I don’t know whether it was because they were men,” she says, “but all the previous artistic directors here have felt the need to kill their daddies. I don’t feel that pressure.”

The first time I met Vicky Featherstone she was fresh from creating, from scratch, the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), and just six months into her residence at the top of the Court’s odd hybrid of a building – half Victorian attic, half Pompidou Centre. And she had every reason to be positive. Seen from a distance, her tenure at the NTS looked a huge success: within two years of starting the job she came up with “Black Watch”, a bona-fide hit that retold Scottish soldiers’ experiences in Iraq, won four Olivier awards and went on to tour the world. And she quickly created a format for something that hadn’t existed before: a national theatre without a building. As she commissioned and programmed new plays for specific sites and audiences with almost shocking confidence, you got a sense of an unstoppable force rolling across the Scottish landscape. So it was no great surprise when she was announced as the successor to Dominic Cooke, who ran the Royal Court from 2007 to 2013.

But feeling no pressure? Don’t you believe it. The Court, as it’s affectionately known, has previous. Since its founder George Devine kicked things off in 1954, it has been moulded by a series of ultra-alpha, daddy-bashing males, among them Max Stafford-Clark, Stephen Daldry, Ian Rickson and Dominic Cooke. The plays they put on have alternately rattled audiences and shown them new ways of understanding themselves, while the playwrights who found a home there – Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth – have remade, refreshed and revivified their art form. “It was still the most contentious and important theatre in London when I started out in the late 1960s and 1970s,” David Hare says in an e-mail. Forty years on, Dennis Kelly, the writer of “Gorge Mastromas”, remembers how, as a tyro writer, “I pressed my face against the windows of the Court”, longing to be part of its machine. It matters.

It matters to audiences, too. Any new head of the Royal Court is expected to make a splash, and quickly. Devine’s third show was, famously, the premiere of John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger”, setting a ground-shaking template that all his successors must have felt the need to emulate. The most successful of them found the bullseye and defined the epoch at least once in their tenure. Stafford-Clark did it with “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill; Daldry did it with Sarah Kane’s “Blasted”; Cooke did it with Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem”. So although there are two other women running important London theatres – Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse, and Indhu Ruba­sing­ham at the Tricycle – neither came into their jobs with quite the same weight of history and expectation on their shoulders. And, as Hare points out, the Court no longer has a monopoly on the modern: “Now that new work is done all over London, in many different houses, the Court’s identity is more blurred. The danger is that it seems like one of several interchangeable new-play supermarkets, in which no one distinctive view of the world is prioritised over any other. I imagine that’s a challenge Vicky Featherstone is alive to.”

There is a final pressure, too, though this one would have come from Featherstone herself. The Court has always been like a pendulum, swinging between humanist and political theatre, depending on who’s winding the clock. Stafford-Clark, at the helm through the Thatcher years, was determinedly political; Cooke, Featherstone’s immediate predecessor, was in the humanist camp, holding a mirror up to (often upper) middle-class life. In the two years since her appointment it has become clear that Vicky Featherstone’s instincts are to swing the other way. And not everybody likes it.

The collaborator: Featherstone in rehearsal with Zinnie Harris, author of “How to Hold Your Breath”, in January 2015

She began, in April 2013, with Open Court – a summer season of playlets and socially aware discussion sessions that attracted attention, but not audiences. Since then, more than a handful of the plays she has programmed – including “The Mistress Contract” by the usually reliably popular Abi Morgan, Tim Price’s revolutionary (and poorly spelt) “Teh Internet is Serious Business”, and a richly poetic piece of apocalypse-drama, “How to Hold Your Breath” by Zinnie Harris – have divided the critics neatly in half, often along political lines. “What’s wrong at the Royal Court?”, the Times asked recently, citing a list of shows that, by its lights, had failed to hit their mark. So the pressures were there – even if they weren’t the killing kind.

 

“How to Hold Your Breath”, February 2015: Maxine Peake and Michael Shaeffer hold each other but lose the critics

Button-bright, rosy and attentive, Vicky Featherstone’s default position is agreeable. Dressed most days in loose, rehearsal-ready clothes – dark jeans rolled up at the ankle, stripy socks, baggy grey sweatshirt – she smiles readily and sharply, a punctuation mark in the jolly, flirtatious impetus of her conversations. She’s quick, in both senses of the word: her intelligence rushes her towards the end of sentences, where she lingers over her final consonants, inviting you to listen, to agree. In the 18 months I spent dipping in and out of her working life, she was never anything less than welcoming; but her warmth is slippery. Like a lacquer, it can deflect.

Take the women thing. For a building that supposedly acts as an icebreaker through the polar cap of the mainstream, at times the Court has had criminally few women on board. In Devine’s nine-year tenure, just 12 out of his 157 full productions were by female playwrights; in Cooke’s six years, 12 plays by women made it into the main house (though a further 22 were produced in the studio theatre upstairs).

So the first question to ask is whether Featherstone feels any responsibility to achieve a better record. “I don’t think the question now is about how many women get plays on. The question I’m interested in is how women are represented on stage. I still read hundreds of plays – I’ve even put on a few of them – where the role for the woman is the mother who creates problems for the boy who’s the main character. I’ll never put one of those plays on again. Because unless we stop doing that, those things never, ever shift.”

Why then, was “Gorge Mastromas”, her first play, built around a man – and a man, at that, whose only experience of women was as problems for him to solve? “That’s actually right,” she says. “It’s only lately I’ve realised I didn’t even ask Dennis [Kelly] that question.”

But you need to start?

“I need to start asking those questions, yes.” She smiles, full beam; the lacquer is on.

Then there’s her attitude to the plays. By January this year she had commissioned a roll-call of no fewer than 30 new plays, a large proportion inherited from her predecessor, and already shown several of them in what she called “my first real, full season”. Some of those shows she must hold a special tenderness for. But when I ask which, she dodges. “I can’t say. Not for fear of upsetting anyone, but because they’re all incredibly important, beautiful things, they all need to be loved equally. Like children. I hope you don’t think that’s evasive?” Well, yes, a little.

I’ve seen most of Featherstone’s children, and three things stand out. First, she has a preference for modern, at times almost Brechtian, morality tales, and is drawn to explorations of revolution, whether social or political. Second, her commissions are becoming steadily more women-centric. And third – she likes those plastic chairs. A lot.

By May 2014 they’re at work again, this time in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. It’s a grand name for what’s revealed, in dusty spring sunlight, as a scuffed, black-painted room on the fourth floor. Benches for the audience rise on a scaffolding rake; on the bare floor in front of them are a bin, a microphone stand, a small freestanding bookshelf with no books on it, and 12 mostly young men and women, who settle themselves around a large square table.

This is day two of preparation for a rehearsed reading the following evening of “Maidan: Voices from the Uprising”, one of a long line of Court productions of verbatim plays with a political purpose. The writer, a sharp-faced woman with tired eyes, has been brought over from Ukraine after piecing together first-person accounts from the Maidan demonstrations of the previous winter. Helped by a translator, Featherstone has been working on the resulting script intensively for the past three days, at home until 8 or 9pm, going to bed and then starting on it again at about 5am.

Together with the cast, the writer and a translator, she sits at the table, head bowed in concentration, as the actors read out their parts. They proceed slowly, line by line, unknitting meaning. Sometimes they get through a page before Featherstone asks them to stop, but more often it’s only two or three lines before she asks the writers for background. How many “Andreis” were present that day? Is a translation also a metaphor in Ukrainian? When one of the actors frets about not understanding a phrase, she spells it out for him. “It’s a symbol,” she says, before adding: “That’s why I’m here. To straighten these things out. Otherwise there is no job for me.” (Months later, when I ask her if she sees her job more as clarifying, or as directing, she replies, slightly testily, “I don’t see that there’s any difference.”) Soon, another actor suddenly gets up from the table and leaves the room, with no reference to Featherstone. Some directors would see that as a challenge to their authority; she simply glances up and lets the work continue.

“Collaboration” is a word she uses a lot. She intro­duces me to her colleagues as someone with whom “I’m collaborating”; at one point she describes herself as “60% natural collaborator, 40% ‘do it my way’”. When I ask what her ambition for the building is, she first says she wants to find plays that are “urgent…that feel they have to be put on stage, either because of their subject matter or their style”; then that she is “ambitious, in a quiet, steadfast way, for my writers”. Neither is surprising; any new-writing specialist would probably say the same. Then she adds a new ingredient: democracy. “The Royal Court has always been very top-down. I enjoy leadership. I’m not intimidated by it in any way. But I feel excited about really pushing people, going, ‘I want you to come up with the ideas.’ There are so many extraordinary minds here, so we’ve agreed, as a team, to make the most of all the minds on the team…The single taste of the artistic director is not enough for this building to be successful.”

Even had she wanted to, Featherstone didn’t have much time to impose a taste, whether hers or anybody else’s, on “Maidan”. But by the actual performance, only a day after the rehearsal, she had wrought an extraordinary change. That dingy room of 24 hours ago was now a theatre and the material was, no other word for it, useful: informative, vivid, explanatory, shocking. In 90 minutes I learned more about the fissure in Ukraine’s coherence than I had from weeks of reading the paper. This was theatre with more to do than simply entertain.

The first time Vicky Featherstone walked into the Royal Court was in 1984, when, as an English and drama student at Manchester University, she went to see an “amazing” Stafford-Clark season that included Sarah Daniels’s “Masterpieces” and “Rat in the Skull”, a scalding dissection of the psychology behind the Irish Troubles. She had gone to Manchester – then taking a particularly political approach to dramaturgy – after rejecting an offer to read English at Cambridge.“Its entitlement and inequality wasn’t truthful or genuine. There was something else out there that wasn’t about this smug, easy world. It didn’t feel a political choice; I just didn’t want to become that kind of person.”

Not much danger of that. Featherstone’s childhood was the mutable kind where you can take little for granted: she grew up on a peripatetic merry-go-round that took her family from Mumbai to Croydon – an unlovely suburb of south London – to Germany and finally back to Croydon. Although she went to university intending to be an actor, she soon worked out she was “always looking at myself from the outside”, and after directing a friend’s play, realised “that’s what I’m supposed to be”. Her most heavily spot-lit memory is of a set book in her first year, “A Good Night Out” by John McGrath. “Basically, it said that theatre should be for everybody. And I went, ‘Oh my God, of course it should.’ For me, that’s what theatre should be.”

This makes sense of her approach to the job in Scotland, where her skill lay in finding plays that resonated with communities in off-track places, often not set in traditional theatres. “Black Watch” was originally staged in a drill hall, and took two years to transfer to London partly because of  its makers’ worries about finding the right space to play it in. Anthony Burton, the lawyer who chairs the Royal Court’s board – and interviewed Featherstone for her job – says one of the most focused parts of her vision for the theatre was “to ensure that it isn’t too isolated from what’s going on elsewhere…to tour, to produce plays in schools, to develop the work away from Sloane Square.”

Ah, Sloane Square. The Royal Court’s location is as much a part of Featherstone’s burden as its history. A place so redolent of a certain kind of solidly wealthy Englishness that in the 1980s it spawned its own social stereotype – the frilly-collared Sloane Ranger, and her braying Hooray boyfriend. And the trend has only gone upwards. “In 1984 it just felt kind of posh,” Featherstone says. “I don’t think I had the same sense of the huge divide as now – it’s unbelievably rich round here now.” Does she think the theatre sits on the fault-line of that social divide? There’s a beat. “I kind of love where it is now. I find it really useful; it surprises me how passionate I feel about it. It’s very important when you make work about the contemporary world that you don’t ferret yourself away. It’s really interesting having to engage with our community. Our whole community.”

Another day, after I make a passing remark about the Court’s rooftop terrace, she smiles brightly and says, “We can’t use it. Some of the neighbours don’t like us looking into their £8m gardens.” This is not an overstatement: at the time of writing, a three-bedroom flat on Sloane Square was on sale for £7.9m.

Anthony Neilson, a playwright, an old hand at the Court and, as a Scot, a man who kept a close eye on Featherstone’s work at the NTS, says that Dominic Cooke’s reaction to the £8m gang “wasn’t to change the audience, it was to target that audience more accurately”. (Two of Cooke’s lushest successes bear that out: “Clybourne Park”, a play as much about property prices as about race, and “Enron”, about fraudulent accountants.) Featherstone, he feels, wants to fire her arrows elsewhere: “A few years ago, when the Court did a survey, it showed that something like 80% of its audience walked to the theatre. Vicky, I think, genuinely wants to take on the idea of changing that demographic. She wants to take things out and about, do more site-specific stuff and go out into communities more, which was obviously a big part of the NTS.”

Nick Payne, whose Court hit “Constellations” (2012) went on to Broadway, confirms this outward-looking instinct.“If your play can work in one of [the Court’s] spaces, great, she’ll do it. But if it needs to be somewhere else, if there’s a better location that doesn’t involve an audience watching something in a proscenium arch, she’ll find the way to do it.”

Not so much thinking outside the box, then, as thinking outside the building. But could someone whose biggest success to date was with a company without a home, find four walls more restricting than invigorating? Is the building the problem? “Not entirely the building and its history,” Anthony Neilson says, “but perhaps the systems, the organisation and everything around that…I think there’s a conservatism [in England], within the theatrical culture, that probably surprised her after her sojourn in Scotland.”

Later, Featherstone tells me: “I could be homesick for Scotland. If I had that kind of sentiment in me.”

The second time I meet Featherstone, we spend some time discussing success, and what it means inside a theatre, as well as out. “George Devine”, she points out, “said of the Royal Court that ‘it must always be ahead of public taste’. That’s exactly right. Our audience really understands that – that some things will be big hits, and extraordinary, and some things won’t – but that the endeavour of both things is the same.”

Tony Richardson, the louche director and dynast who doubled as Devine’s right-hand man, said something crisper still: “The Royal Court must have the right to fail.” It must encourage writers to take risks, or the art form would never develop. Featherstone turns this upside-down: “The endeavour is always to try to be successful” – but within the individual terms of each play. Her stretch is “to be clear why we’re doing each project and what it’s for. If we’re very clear about what that is, and what the aims of that are, then it’s really straightforward to understand where it’s worked and where it hasn’t. But if all we’re trying to do is get 90% audiences for every single show – well, that’s blind.”

Record-breaking: “Birdland”, April 2014, with Andrew Scott, aka Moriarty

She may already have had her career high, “Black Watch”; to ask for another one could be presumptuous. But it depends on your frame of reference. If cash is the question, she says that by January this year two plays she’d programmed had already broken box-office records. The second of these, “Birdland”, also ticked the changing-the-audience box, and in thick black marker pen at that: it starred Andrew Scott (billed by the press, inevitably, as “TV’s Moriarty”) as a twitching, lithe, childish and occasionally terrifying rock star, and the largely teen audience – plenty of “Sherlock” fans – were gripped, squeaking their excitement to each other as we filed out. “The Nether”, which originally played in the main house in the summer of 2014, transferred to the West End in January this year; deservedly so. And in November 2014, Featherstone directed “God Bless the Child”, which tore down the notional proscenium arch of the Jerwood, inviting audiences instead into a wholly realistic, primary-coloured, primary-school classroom. Her direction of 16 equally believable eight-year-olds was masterful and made some sharp points about liberal educational mores. Oh, and all the adult leads were women. She’d been asking that question after all.

Which takes us back to those plastic chairs. Back in 2013, looking at them lined up dully on an unadorned set, I felt the director had suffered a failure of imagination; now I wonder. Was the plainness actually a bald expression of her desire to reach “the whole community”, to not be “that” kind of person? Was she trying to kill Dominic Cooke’s mirror-to-the-middle-classes daddy after all? If so, I’d say the ghost has been laid. The Royal Court, that heavy building, may be pushing Vicky Featherstone in one direction, but she’s pushing back. Hard.

CORRECTION

This article was amended on September 10th 2015. In our interview with Vicky Featherstone we refer to the handover period at the Royal Court, London, when she took over from Dominic Cooke as artistic director. We were wrong to refer to a “programming hole”. In fact Dominic Cooke left more than 20 plays under commission when he stood down, including two which Vicky Featherstone later produced (“The Pass” and “God Bless the Child”) and two commissioned in the handover period which she later produced (“Adler and Gibb”, and “Birdland”). Dominic Cooke produced 12 plays by women in the Theatre Downstairs and 22 upstairs (not 9 and 16 respectively, as stated in our article). We apologise for these mistakes and for any misunderstanding or embarrassment caused by our article.

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