Royal Court Theatre

Last updated

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 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;151 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, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, England. In 1956 it was acquired by and remains the home of the English Stage Company and is notable for its contributions to contemporary theatre.



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 The Happy Land - Illustrated London News, March 22, 1873.PNG
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. [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

The interior was reconstructed by Robert Cromie, and the number of seats was reduced to under 500. The theatre re-opened in 1952. [8] George Devine was appointed artistic director at the suggestion of Oscar Lewenstein, one of the founders of the English Stage Company. Greville Poke, another co-founder was appointed Honorary Secretary of the ESC in October 1954. [9] The ESC opened 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. Devine produced the new company's third production in 1956, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger , a play by one of the angry young men. The director was Tony Richardson. Osborne followed Look Back in Anger with The Entertainer , with Laurence Olivier in the lead as Archie Rice, a play the actor effectively commissioned from the playwright. Significantly, although it was quickly reversed, the artistic board of the ESC initially rejected the play. Two members of the board were in agreement in opposing The Entertainer. The verse dramatist Ronald Duncan, the third co-founder of the ESC, disliked the work of Osborne according to Osborne biographer John Heilpern, [11] [lower-alpha 2] while Lewenstein, a former Communist, [13] did not want one of the theatre's new plays to be overwhelmed by its star and did not think much of the play. [11]

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] [14] The Rocky Horror Show premiered there in 1973. The theatre was Grade II listed in June 1972. [15]

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 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.[ 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. [16] In May 2008 The English Stage Company presented The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg at the "Contact International Theatre Festival" in Poland. [17]

Artistic Directors have included Ian Rickson (1998–2006), Max Stafford-Clark, Stuart Burge, Robert Kidd, Nicholas Wright, Lindsay Anderson, Anthony Page, and William Gaskill. [18] From 2007 to 2012, the theatre's Artistic Director was Dominic Cooke and the deputy artistic director was Jeremy Herrin. Vicky Featherstone, the first female artistic director, previously founding head of the National Theatre of Scotland, replaced Cooke as Artistic Director in April 2013. [19] [20]

Controversy over Seven Jewish Children

Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children played at the theatre in 2009. Many Jewish leaders and journalists criticised the play as antisemitic. [21] [22] [23] [24] One called it "a libellous and despicable demonisation of Israeli parents and grandparents" and a modern blood libel drawing on old anti-Semitic myths. [21] Michael Billington in The Guardian described the play as "a heartfelt lamentation for the future generations". [25] The paper contended that the play, though controversial, is not antisemitic, [26] yet Seven Jewish Children was viewed by another Guardian writer as historically inaccurate and harshly critical of Jews. [27] In reply, the Royal Court issued the following statement:

Some concerns have been raised that the Royal Court's production of Seven Jewish Children ... is anti-Semitic. We categorically reject that accusation.... While [it] 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. [28]

Notable productions since the 1950s








Related Research Articles

Tony Richardson

Cecil Antonio "Tony" Richardson was an English theatre and film director and producer whose career spanned five decades. In 1964 he won the Academy Award for Best Director for the film Tom Jones.

John James Osborne was an English playwright, screenwriter and actor, known for his excoriating prose and intense critical stance towards established social and political norms. The success of his 1956 play Look Back in Anger transformed English theatre.

Sarah Kane English playwright

Sarah Kane was an English playwright, screenwriter and theatre director. She is known for her plays that deal with themes of redemptive love, sexual desire, pain, torture—both physical and psychological—and death. They are characterised by a poetic intensity, pared-down language, exploration of theatrical form and, in her earlier work, the use of extreme and violent stage action.

<i>Blasted</i> Play by Sarah Kane

Blasted is the first play by the British author Sarah Kane. It was first performed in 1995 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London.

Jill Bennett (British actress) English actress

Nora Noel Jill Bennett was an English actress, and the fourth wife of playwright John Osborne.

George Alexander Cassady Devine was an English theatrical manager, director, teacher, and actor based in London from the early 1930s until his death. He also worked in TV and film.

Maxwell Robert Guthrie Stewart "Max" Stafford-Clark is a British theatre director.

Josie Rourke is an English theatre and film director. She is a Vice-President of the London Library and was the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London from 2012 to 2019.

Dominic Cooke is an English director and writer.

Jocelyn Herbert

Jocelyn Herbert RDI was a highly influential British stage designer.

Seven Other Children is a 2009 play by Richard Stirling.

Ian David Rickson is a British theatre director. He was the artistic director at the Royal Court Theatre in London from 1998 to 2006.

Silvion Oscar Lewenstein was a British theatre and film producer, who helped create some of the leading British theatre and film productions of the 1950s and 1960s.

Vicky Featherstone is a theatre and artistic director. She has been artistic director of London's Royal Court Theatre since April 2013. Prior to that she was founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, and before that artistic director of the UK new writing touring theatre company Paines Plough. Her career has been characterised by significant involvement with new writing.

Kip Williams is an Australian theatre director. Williams is the Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company.

Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza is a six-page, 10-minute play by British playwright Caryl Churchill, written in response to the 2008-2009 Israel military strike on Gaza, and first performed at London's Royal Court Theatre on 6 February 2009. Churchill, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, has said that anyone wishing to produce it may do so gratis, so long as they hold a collection for the people of Gaza at the end.

Caryl Churchill is a British playwright known for dramatising the abuses of power, for her use of non-naturalistic techniques, and for her exploration of sexual politics and feminist themes. Celebrated for works such as Cloud 9 (1979), Top Girls (1982), Serious Money (1987), Blue Heart (1997), Far Away (2000), and A Number (2002), she has been described as "one of Britain's greatest poets of and innovators for the contemporary stage". In a 2011 dramatists' poll by The Village Voice, five out of the 20 polled writers listed Churchill as the greatest living playwright.

Love and Information is a play written by the British playwright Caryl Churchill. It first opened at the Royal Court Theatre in September 2012. It received many positive reviews from critics.

James Macdonald is a British theatre and film director who is best known for his work with contemporary writers such as Caryl Churchill. He was associate and deputy director of The Royal Court from 1992–2006. There he staged the premiere of Sarah Kane's Blasted (1995), her highly controversial debut which sparked a Newsnight debate on BBC Television. He also directed the premiere of Kane's Cleansed (1998) and 4.48 Psychosis which opened after her suicide.

Greville John Poke was an arts administrator and a founding member of the English Stage Company. He served as the Honorary Secretary of the English Stage Company from 1954 to 1973 and chairman from 1973 to 1978.



  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. [12]


  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. Roberts, Philip (1999). The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage. Cambridge University Library. pp.  20–21. ISBN   0-521-47962-2.
  10. Royal Court Theatre: History
  11. 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)
  12. Zarhy-Levo, Yael (2008). The Making of Theatrical Reputations: Studies from the Modern London Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. 31.
  13. Murphy, Robert. "Lewenstein, (Silvion) Oscar (1917–1997)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  14. 63 seat Theatre Upstairs
  15. English Heritage listing details accessed 28 April 2007
  16. International Department, Royal Court Theatre
  17. Contact International Theatre Festival 2008 Archived 13 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine accessed 24 May 2008
  18. "Artistic Directors" since 1956, Royal Court Theatre website
  19. "Royal Court names Vicky Featherstone as Cooke successor". BBC Online . 11 May 2012. Retrieved 12 May 2012.
  20. Dickson, Andrew (11 May 2012). "Royal Court hires Vicky Featherstone as first female artistic director". The Guardian.
  21. 1 2 Symons, Leon. "Outrage over 'demonising' play for Gaza," The Jewish Chronicle, 12 February 2009
  22. Goldberg, Jeffrey. "The Royal Court Theatre's Blood Libel", Atlantic Monthly 9 February 2009
  23. Healy, Patrick. "Workshop May Present Play Critical of Israel", New York Times, 17 February 2009
  24. "The Stone and Seven Jewish Children", The Sunday Times, 15 February 2009
  25. Billington, Michael (11 February 2009). "Theatre: Seven Jewish Children". The Guardian.
  26. Higgins, Charlotte (18 February 2009). "Is Seven Jewish Children anti-semitic?". The Guardian.
  27. Romain, Jonathan (20 February 2009). "Selective bravery is not very brave". The Guardian. ...the same standards must apply to all faiths
  28. Beckford, Martin. "Prominent Jews accuse Royal Court play of demonising Israelis", Daily Telegraph, 18 February 2009
  29. 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.
  30. The play was later adapted as a film. Steiner, Richard. "The Knack ...and How to Get It". Turner Classic Movies . Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  31. The play was later adapted as a film. Sinyard, Neil. The Films of Nicolas Roeg, Charles Letts & Co. (1991 ), p. 97