Royal Court Theatre

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Royal Court Theatre
1870: New Chelsea Theatre
Royal Court theater, Sloane Square Chelsea London UK 2020.jpg
The Royal Court Theatre in 2020
Royal Court Theatre
Address Sloane Square
London, SW1
United Kingdom
Coordinates 51°29′33″N0°09′24″W / 51.492583°N 0.156583°W / 51.492583; -0.156583
Public transit Underground no-text.svg Sloane Square
OwnerEnglish Stage Company
Designation Grade II listed
Type Non-commercial theatre
Capacity Theatre Downstairs: 380
Theatre Upstairs: 85
Opened1870;154 years ago (1870)
Rebuilt1888 (Walter Emden & Bertie Crewe)
2000 (Haworth Tompkins)

The Royal Court Theatre, at different times known as the Court Theatre, the New Chelsea Theatre, and the Belgravia Theatre, is a non-commercial West End theatre in Sloane Square, London, England. In 1956 it was acquired by and remains the home of the English Stage Company, which is known for its contributions to contemporary theatre and won the Europe Prize Theatrical Realities in 1999.



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. [lower-alpha 1]

Scene from The Happy Land, showing the scandalous impersonation of Gladstone, Lowe, and Ayrton (1873) The Happy Land - Illustrated London News, March 22, 1873.PNG
Scene from The Happy Land, showing the scandalous impersonation of Gladstone, Lowe, and Ayrton (1873)

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. [1]

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). [2] After that, Arthur Cecil (who had joined the theatre's company in 1881) was co-manager of the theatre with John Clayton. [3] 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. [4] The theatre closed on 22 July 1887 and was demolished. [5]

The current theatre: 1888–1952

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. Designed by Walter Emden and Bertie Crewe, it is constructed of fine red brick, moulded brick, and a stone facade in free Italianate style. Originally the theatre had a capacity of 841 in the stalls, dress circle, amphitheatre, and a gallery.

Cecil and Clayton 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. [3] The first production in the new building was a play by Sydney Grundy titled Mamma, starring Mrs. John Wood and John Hare, with Arthur Cecil and Eric Lewis. [6] By the end of the century, the theatre was again called the "Royal Court Theatre". [7]

Harley Granville-Barker managed the theatre for the first few years of the 20th century, and George Bernard Shaw's plays were produced at the New Court for a period. 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. [2]

The English Stage Company

After the war, the interior was reconstructed as a stage theatre by Robert Cromie, and the number of seats was reduced to under 500. The theatre re-opened in 1952, [8] with Oscar Lewenstein as the general manager. In 1954, Lewenstein, together with George Devine, Ronald Duncan and Greville Poke, founded the English Stage Company (ESC) with a mission to present plays by young and experimental dramatists and "the best contemporary plays from abroad". [9] Devine served as the first artistic director of the ESC, while Poke was its Honorary Secretary. [10] The ESC purchased the Royal Court in 1956 and began to produce adventurous new and foreign works, together with some classical revivals. [11]

The new company's third production in 1956, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger , was a play by one of the Angry Young Men. The director was Tony Richardson. Osborne followed Look Back in Anger with The Entertainer , starring Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice, a play the actor effectively commissioned from the playwright. The artistic board of the ESC initially rejected the play, although they soon reversed that decision. Two members of the board opposed The Entertainer: Duncan disliked Osborne's work, according to the biographer John Heilpern, [12] [lower-alpha 2] while Lewenstein, a former Communist, [14] did not want one of the theatre's new plays to be overwhelmed by its star and did not think much of the play. [12]

In the mid-1960s, the ESC became involved in issues of censorship. Their premiere productions of Osborne's A Patriot for Me and Saved by Edward Bond (both 1965) necessitated the theatre turning itself into a "private members club" to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain, formally responsible for the licensing of plays until the Theatres Act 1968. The succès de scandale of the two plays helped to bring about the abolition of theatre censorship in the UK.[ citation needed ] During the period of Devine's directorship, besides Osborne and Bond, the Royal Court 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, Errol John, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Sylvia Wynter, Mark Ravenhill, Martin McDonagh, Simon Stephens, Leo Butler, Polly Stenham and Nick Payne. Early seasons included new international plays by Bertolt Brecht, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Marguerite Duras. In addition to the 400-seat proscenium arch Theatre Downstairs, the much smaller studio Theatre Upstairs was opened in 1969, at the time a 63-seat facility. [2] [15] The Rocky Horror Show premiered there in 1973. The theatre was Grade II listed in June 1972. [16]

The Royal Court Theatre at dusk in 2007 Royalcourttheatre.jpg
The Royal Court Theatre at dusk in 2007

Though the main auditorium and the façade were attractive, the remainder of the building provided poor facilities for both audience and performers, and throughout the 20th century the stalls and understage often flooded. By the early 1990s the building had deteriorated dangerously, and the theatre 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, and Roy Williams, among others.[ citation needed ]

Since the 1990s the Royal Court has placed an emphasis on the development and production of international plays. 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 more recently the Genesis Foundation has also supported the production of international plays. The theatre received a 1999 International Theatre Institute award. [17] In May 2008, the English Stage Company presented The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg at the "Contact International Theatre Festival" in Poland. [18]

Artistic Directors have included George Devine (1956–1965), William Gaskill (1965–1972), Lindsay Anderson and Anthony Page (1969–1972), Oscar Lewenstein (1972–1975), Nicholas Wright and Robert Kidd (1975–1977), Stuart Burge (1977–1979), Max Stafford-Clark (1979–1992), Stephen Daldry (1992–1998), Ian Rickson (1998–2006) [19] and Dominic Cooke (2007 to 2012). [20] Vicky Featherstone was the first female artistic director (2013–2024). [21] [22] David Byrne took over the role in early 2024. [23]

Antisemitism controversies

In 1987, Ken Loach's production of Perdition at the Royal Court Theatre was abandoned after protests and commissioned reviews from two historians, Martin Gilbert and David Cesarani. [24] [25] Oxford historian Gilbert said the play was "a travesty of the facts" and "deeply antisemitic". [25] [26] Loach and the play's author, Jim Allen, denied the accusations and accused the "Zionist lobby" and "the Zionist machine" of stirring up controversy unfairly. [25] [27]

Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children played at the theatre in 2009. Many Jewish leaders and journalists criticised the play as antisemitic. [28] [29] [30] [31] One called it "a libellous and despicable demonisation of Israeli parents and grandparents" and a modern blood libel drawing on old antisemitic myths. [28] Michael Billington in The Guardian described the play as "a heartfelt lamentation for the future generations" [32] and contended that the play, though controversial, is not antisemitic. [33] Another Guardian writer viewed Seven Jewish Children as historically inaccurate and harshly critical of Jews. [34] The Royal Court denied the accusations, saying: "In keeping with its philosophy, the Royal Court Theatre presents a multiplicity of viewpoints." [35]

In November 2021, the theatre renamed the lead character of the play Rare Earth Mettle by Al Smith from "Hershel Fink" to "Henry Finn" following criticism of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes. [36] [37] [38] The Royal Court Theatre also made an apology. [39] [40]

Europe Theatre Prize

In 1999, the theatre was awarded the "Europe Prize Theatrical Realities". [41] The prize organization stated:

[T]he Royal Court Theatre ... has done more than any other institution to promote new writing. Since 1956 it has premiered the work of many of the best-known British dramatists: Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Bond, Barker, Brenton, Hare and Churchill. But this Award is given not so much for the Court's distinguished history as for its championship ... of [a] new generation of challenging, often profoundly disturbing, writers ... like Sarah Kane ( Blasted and Cleansed ), Mark Ravenhill ( Shopping and Fucking ) and Jez Butterworth ( Mojo ) ... [and] presented outstanding plays by young Irish writers such as Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. It ... has given voice to a new generation of young writers whose moral anger, urban despair and political disillusion have sent shockwaves throughout the whole of Europe. [42]

Notable productions since the 1950s








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  1. During mid-1870, it was briefly called the "Belgravia" Theatre, but all of W. S. Gilbert's pieces presented at the theatre, beginning in 1871, were publicised as playing at the "Court Theatre".
  2. Despite Heilpern's claim, Duncan seems to have recognised the qualities of Look Back in Anger. [13]


  1. Ainger 2002 , p. 168
  2. 1 2 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.
  3. 1 2 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
  4. Profile of the theatre and other Victorian theatres
  5. Howard, Deborah (1970). London Theatres and Music Halls 1850–1950. London: The Library Association. p. 54. OCLC   883157080.
  6. "New Court Theatre". The Times. 25 September 1888. p. 9.
  7. "The Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London: The New Court Theatre",, accessed 19 December 2017
  8. Mackintosh, Iain; Sell, Michael (1982). Curtains!!!; or, A new life for old theatres. Eastbourne: John Offord. p. 155. See Plate 15.
  9. Benedick, Adam (31 March 1997). "Obituary: Oscar Lewenstein" . The Independent . Archived from the original on 15 December 2013. Retrieved 20 April 2022.
  10. Roberts, Philip (1999). The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage. Cambridge University Library. pp.  20–21. ISBN   0-521-47962-2.
  11. History, Royal Court Theatre. Retrieved 21 April 2022
  12. 1 2 Heilpern, John. John Osborne: A Patriot for Us, London: Vintage, 2007 [2006], p.216; "'It's me, isn't it?'", The Guardian , 6 March 2007 (extract)
  13. Zarhy-Levo, Yael (2008). The Making of Theatrical Reputations: Studies from the Modern London Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. 31. ISBN   9781587297793.
  14. Murphy, Robert. "Lewenstein, (Silvion) Oscar (1917–1997)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  15. 63 seat Theatre Upstairs
  16. English Heritage listing details accessed 28 April 2007
  17. International Department, Royal Court Theatre
  18. Contact International Theatre Festival 2008 Archived 13 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine accessed 24 May 2008
  19. "About Us: Artistic Directors", Royal Court Theatre. Retrieved 28 July 2023
  20. Kellaway, Kate. "Royal Court theatre prepares to bid farewell to King Dominic", The Guardian, 10 March 2013
  21. "Royal Court names Vicky Featherstone as Cooke successor". BBC News. 11 May 2012. Retrieved 12 May 2012.
  22. Dickson, Andrew (11 May 2012). "Royal Court hires Vicky Featherstone as first female artistic director". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 July 2021.
  23. "Royal Court names David Byrne as AD". The Guardian. 20 July 2023. Retrieved 28 July 2023.
  24. Abramson, Glenda (1998). Drama and ideology in modern Israel. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN   0-521-44159-5. OCLC   37721290.
  25. 1 2 3 Joffee, Linda (23 February 1987). "A play no theater will play". The Christian Science Monitor. ISSN   0882-7729 . Retrieved 7 November 2021.
  26. "London Theater Drops Disputed Play". The New York Times. Reuters. 22 January 1987. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 7 November 2021.
  27. Rich, Dave (2016). The Left's Jewish problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and anti-Semitism. London: Biteback Publishing. ISBN   978-1-78590-151-5. OCLC   968510101.
  28. 1 2 Symons, Leon. "Outrage over 'demonising' play for Gaza," The Jewish Chronicle, 12 February 2009
  29. Goldberg, Jeffrey. "The Royal Court Theatre's Blood Libel", Atlantic Monthly 9 February 2009
  30. Healy, Patrick. "Workshop May Present Play Critical of Israel", New York Times, 17 February 2009
  31. "The Stone and Seven Jewish Children", The Sunday Times, 15 February 2009
  32. Billington, Michael (11 February 2009). "Theatre: Seven Jewish Children". The Guardian.
  33. Higgins, Charlotte (18 February 2009). "Is Seven Jewish Children anti-semitic?". The Guardian.
  34. Romain, Jonathan (20 February 2009). "Selective bravery is not very brave". The Guardian. ...the same standards must apply to all faiths
  35. Beckford, Martin (19 February 2009). "Prominent Jews accuse Royal Court play of demonising Israelis" . The Telegraph . Archived from the original on 12 January 2022.
  36. Thorpe, Vanessa (6 November 2021). "Antisemitism row forces Royal Court theatre to change name of character". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 November 2021.
  37. Sawer, Patrick (6 November 2021). "Royal Court theatre changes billionaire character's Jewish name after anti-Semitism accusations" . The Daily Telegraph. ISSN   0307-1235. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022. Retrieved 7 November 2021.
  38. "UK theater changes name of moneyman character in play after antisemitism outcry". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 7 November 2021.
  39. Maltby, Kate. "The inside story of the Royal Court Theatre's antisemitism". The Times . ISSN   0140-0460 . Retrieved 22 November 2021.
  40. Malvern, Jack (8 November 2021). "The Royal Court Theatre renames Jewish character after complaint". The Times . ISSN   0140-0460 . Retrieved 10 November 2021.
  41. "VII Edizione" (in Italian). Premio Europa per il Teatro. Retrieved 23 December 2022.
  42. "Europe Theatre Prize: VII Edition – Reasons". Retrieved 23 December 2022.
  43. 1 2 3 4 5 Wiegand, Chris (24 March 2016). "The Royal Court at 60: look back in wonder". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  44. The play was later adapted as a film. Steiner, Richard. "The Knack ...and How to Get It". Turner Classic Movies . Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  45. The play was later adapted as a film. Sinyard, Neil. The Films of Nicolas Roeg, Charles Letts & Co. (1991), p. 97