Holding Court: Vicky Featherstone
Published in The Stage, 04.09.2014
Put an ear to the ground and you might hear the first faint murmurs of dissent. Vicky Featherstone has been in-post at the Royal Court for 18 months and there’s a slight sense that her honeymoon period has come to an end. “I’m starting to have my doubts,” wrote one national critic in June, dishing out his paper’s third consecutive two-star review of a Royal Court premiere. “Where are the plays that matter? Where’s the connection with the here and now?”
The Royal Court is not accustomed to questions like this – certainly not from the mainstream media. Last year, for the first time this century, the theatre failed to muster a single nomination at either the Olivier or the Evening Standard awards. Since Featherstone started, every main stage play, with the exception of the imported Let The Right One In, has had its detractors. One, The Mistress Contract, got a proper critical drubbing. Walk-outs became a regular occurrence.
By contrast, Dominic Cooke’s first year in charge yielded Polly Stenham’s That Face, Mike Bartlett’s My Child and The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris – all debuts of one kind or another and all critical, commercial hits. The Royal Court is often deemed the pinnacle of British new writing. With that in mind, you can understand the unease around Sloane Square.
If Featherstone’s feeling the pressure, however, she’s not showing it. In her petite, exposed brick office behind the theatre’s iconic neon signage, the 47 year-old cuts a relaxed figure. Does she feel the need to deliver a bona fide, indisputable hit – and pronto?
“I really don’t,” she says with a smile. “I don’t because I don’t really understand what a hit is. A real hit is really, really rare; something that comes along once every three or four years across the whole of theatre. Black Watch. Jerusalem. War Horse. Curious Incident.”
However, judging Featherstone on her hit-rate is to fundamentally misunderstand what she and her executive director Lucy Davies are up to. They’re not out to deliver the next batch of contemporary classics, but rather to shift the entire new writing culture: “What is writing for theatre?” Featherstone wonders aloud, “What does it look like? Who associates themselves with that? Who wants to come and see that work?” She’s quite open about her first year: “Some of it has worked and some of it has failed, whatever that means, but that’s absolutely how it should be.”
At the start of her tenure, Featherstone refused to offer any sort of fixed objective, wary, perhaps, of the way Cooke’s mission statement – to “explore what it means to be middle-class” – became his albatross. The way that coloured the Court’s entire output and, as the recession dug in and austerity began to bite, left it looking increasingly out of touch with the issues of the day.
Eighteen months on, Featherstone’s refusal looks more like a statement of intent: an unwillingness to exclude anything. Pushed to pin down her vision for the Court, she replies, “We should always be surprising and slightly indefinable.”
That wasn’t the case when she took over. The Court was undoubtedly successful – transfers, awards, full-houses – but writers had become frustrated by constrictive development processes. New writing felt somewhat staid and homogeneous. The devised versus text battle was still raging. “There was a danger that when we talked about the most exciting new movements in theatre, they didn’t include plays or writers,” she says. Featherstone’s job was to change that – and pronto.
Hence Open Court, the summer festival that handed near-total control to the writers. It seemed pragmatic at the time – a way of programming a season quickly (EDIT: This article originally claimed – mistakenly – that Cooke had left earlier than agreed.) – but the more Featherstone programmes, the more ideological it looks in retrospect. “When we started the conversation with Open Court, the big thing was ‘What do you want the Royal Court to be?’ All the writers sat around and said they wanted it to be a place where they genuinely felt they could take risks.”
Featherstone sees the writers’ trust as the key to her job. “You can only be good at the Royal Court if that’s the case. If you’re trying to put your little claws into everything and shape every single thing, it’s no longer the writers’ theatre.” Put that another way, she wants what they want. “I always want them to be writing plays with the Royal Court, but also to see the Royal Court as a place for experimentation in other ways.” The theatre should bend to fit the writers, not vice versa.
To understand that, you have to appreciate Featherstone’s background. After studying at Manchester (English and Drama, then a Directing MA), her first job was at the Royal Court, assisting Lindsay Posner on Martin Crimp’s No One Sees the Video in 1990. Within ten years, The Guardian had tipped her as a future AD of the theatre, to which she admitted that, yes – “Of course” – she’d like the job in due course. “I’m ambitious, but not ruthlessly so,” she told Lyn Gardner at the time. “I’ve never really planned any of my moves. But I do believe very strongly that you become the sum of your experiences.”
Crucially – rarely – most of hers happened outside London. She spent her twenties working at regional theatres. “By 26, I’d done about ten mid- to large-scale productions. Artistic directors trusted me entirely.” Yet, on returning to London, seeking to specialise in new writing, she landed with a bump. Vicky couldn’t really get arrested at that point,” her long-time collaborator and friend John Tiffany said recently. It led to a big, irksome epiphany: “That Londoncentric thing, that ‘success’ means within London and the rest of the country still has little relevance in that.” Featherstone shifted her focus to television – with startling success. She co-created Where The Heart Is and Silent Witness. “I ended up making quite a lot of money. Well, compared to what I’d been [earning].”
Then in 1997, she was appointed artistic director at Paines Plough then beleaguered and rudderless. Within two years, she had revived the organisation, appointing Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane to the ranks, programming new plays by Abi Morgan and David Greig and vastly increasing the company’s output.
Such was the success of her Paines Plough tenure, Featherstone won the very first National Theatre of Scotland directorship in 2004, despite, as the Scotsman put it, having “appeared on virtually no-one’s lists of favourites.” The job involved inventing a national theatre more or less from scratch and, more than that, a national theatre without a building or a base. Strange to think, a decade on, how radical that model seemed at the time.
Despite 15 years of artistic direction, the Royal Court is the first building she’s run. And, crucially, she’s running it almost as if it weren’t a building. “There’s something literally constraining about walls and I can’t bear the thought that theatre would be constrained within a literal architecture of a building,” she explains. “The ideas have to be bigger than these beautiful bricks in Sloane Square.”
Without a building, she continues, “you’re free to go wherever you please – to a certain extent – and that means you can create whatever sort of work you want. All you have to do is find the right audience for it and then take the work to them.”
Hence exploding the Royal Court’s scheduling model. Under Cooke, Upstairs shows ran for four weeks and Downstairs shows, for up to six. “Open Court completely broke that apart.” Birdland and The Mistress Contract – “the highest-grossing shows the Royal Court’s ever had” – played eight apiece. Upstairs, some shows have played as little as three days.
That opens up the sort of new writing the Royal Court can house. “We can keep these little spaces open and we can react and respond. That’s something I feel strongly about. I’m interested in a balance between slow-cooking, writers really taking their time – Jerusalem’s the best example – to build a play, but also really being able to respond.” New writing’s no longer limited to the sort of plays that can sell a month’s worth of tickets.
The key is stretching the possibilities: make room for the niche or cutting-edge, sure, but expand the possibilities for popular work too, its life-span and reach. “I feel a huge responsibility that the work should be seen by the widest possible audience,” says Featherstone. She’s frank about the need for commercial success beyond Sloane Square “once every few years.”
That’s why Constellations is touring the UK and The River is hitting Broadway. Hence continued schools tours and Enda Walsh’s forthcoming adaptation of The Twits by Roald Dahl. That’s not just cynical, commercially-minded programming: “I want to encourage a body of work for young people, in the spirit of the Royal Court, that’s allowed to be transgressive and intellectually challenging.”
Might that be an encapsulation of the Royal Court as Featherstone sees it? Transgressive and intellectually challenging? It would explain why no play, to date, has won universal acclaim – as often a sign of blandness as brilliance. Certainly it fits with her next season, tied together under the banner headline, revolution. That, she says, just happened to be what the writers were writing about. “I felt we needed to be bold and put them all together.”
What she’s not trying to do, however, is incite an actual uprising. “I don’t feel it’s a political act, a season saying, ‘Come on. Revolt.’ I’m saying that all these playwrights are asking us to think about these things. I feel as challenged by that as I think other people will.” That challenge from writers is exciting her, “reading plays where my moral and political outlook is really being shifted.” The Nether did exactly that, she says: challenged that which she had assumed certain.
That gives an insight into her approach to programming. “The word I like to use is ‘urgent.’ We should only programme things that feel urgent – and that needs to be constantly redefined. If it becomes the same old thing, then it’s no longer urgent. It might mean something about Palestine or democracy in England, but it might mean an out-an-out comedy, even a really well-made play.”
In other words, the Royal Court has a dual role: in the world and in theatre. “You can’t start a revolution from Sloane Square,” she says, “but I can start a revolution from the Royal Court.”
That’s what’s going on: Featherstone (and Davies) are laying the foundations for that, preparing the ground. The Royal Court is transitioning – hence the critics itching for results, audiences re-adjusting, writers testing themselves and their form. The aim is to take new writing into its next phase, to revolutionize it.
That’s when Featherstone lays out her actual objectives in the job: “When I really think about what I’ll want to have created when I leave – whenever that might be – it’s this,” she starts. There are three things on the list: “I’ll want us to have haad one hit that has changed everything” – a Black Watch or Jerusalem; “To give a platform to a writer who changes the way writers think about theare” – “another Beckett, Caryl Churchil, Sarah Kane.” Finally, she adds, “I want to create a tipping point in terms of diversity” – of writers, actors and audiences, until theatre reflects society at large and “there’s no going back.”
Those naysayers had better give her some time.
Photograph: Mark Hamilton