Royal Court Theatre

For the theatre in Liverpool, see Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool.
Royal Court Theatre
1870: New Chelsea Theatre
1871: Belgravia Theatre

The Royal Court Theatre at dusk in 2007
Address Sloane Square
London, SW1
United Kingdom
Coordinates 51°29′33″N 0°09′24″W / 51.492583°N 0.156583°W / 51.492583; -0.156583
Public transit London Underground Sloane Square
Owner English Stage Company
Designation Grade II listed
Type Non-commercial theatre
Capacity Theatre Downstairs: 380
Theatre Upstairs: 85
Opened 1870 (1870)
Rebuilt 1888 (Walter Emden & Bertie Crewe)
2000 (Haworth Tompkins)

The Royal Court Theatre is a non-commercial theatre on Sloane Square, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, England. 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: 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.[4] 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.[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 Royal 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.[8]

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.[9] George Devine was appointed artistic director at the suggestion of Oscar Lewenstein, one of the other two co-founders of the English Stage Company. 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 Conservative Christian verse dramatist Ronald Duncan, the third co-founder of the ESC, disliked the work of Osborne according to Osborne biographer John Heilpern,[11][12] 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. 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, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, 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.[8][14] The Rocky Horror Show premiered there in 1973. The theatre was Grade II listed in June 1972.[15]

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. 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 opened at the theatre in February 2009. Many Jewish leaders and journalists have criticised Seven Jewish Children as antisemitic,[21][22][23][24] 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".[25] 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.[26][27]

Michael Billington in The Guardian described the play as "a heartfelt lamentation for the future generations".[28] The paper contended that the play, though controversial, is not antisemitic,[29] yet Seven Jewish Children was viewed by another Guardian writer as historically inaccurate and harshly critical of Jews.[30] 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.[21] Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly also calls the play a blood libel.[22] 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".[21] The New York Times wrote that the play "at times paints heartless images of Israelis."[23]

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.[27]


  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. 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
  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. 1 2 Social history
  9. Mackintosh and Sell, Curtains!!!, p. 155. See Plate 15.
  10. Royal Court Theatre
  11. 1 2 John Heilpern 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. Despite Heilpern's claim, Duncan seems to have recognised the qualities of Look Back in Anger, see Yael Zarhy-Levo The Making of Theatrical Reputations: Studies from the Modern London Theatre, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008, p.31
  13. Robert Murphy "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 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. Andrew Dickson "Royal Court hires Vicky Featherstone as first female artistic director", The Guardian, 11 May 2012
  21. 1 2 3 Symons, Leon. "Outrage over 'demonising' play for Gaza," The Jewish Chronicle, 12 February 2009
  22. 1 2 Goldberg, Jeffrey. "The Royal Court Theatre's Blood Libel", Atlantic Monthly 9 February 2009
  23. 1 2 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. Nathan, John. "Seven Jewish Children", The Jewish Chronicle, 12 February 2009
  26. Whittle, Peter. "Islam: The Silence of the Arts; The arts are increasingly censoring themselves when it comes to Islam," New Culture Forum, 2007
  27. 1 2 Beckford, Martin. "Prominent Jews accuse Royal Court play of demonising Israelis", Daily Telegraph, 18 February 2009
  28. Michael Billington "Theatre: Seven Jewish Children", The Guardian, 11 February 2009
  29. Charlotte Higgins"Is Seven Jewish Children anti-semitic?" The Guardian (blog), 18 February 2009
  30. Romain, Jonathan. "Selective bravery is not very brave", The Guardian, 20 February 2009. Quote: "...the same standards must apply to all faiths".


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