In each week of the Open Court festival, the downstairs space at the Royal Court is dominated by a huge wooden crate. As the house lights go down on the latest weekly rep offering, Chloe Lamford’s design is a closed box, a sealed-off world within a world. But almost as soon as the action begins, this box tips open, its sides dramatically tumbling down. It’s hard to imagine any better visual metaphor for what is happening at the Royal Court under new artistic director Vicky Featherstone.
Lamford and her design team must also take the credit for much of the transformation elsewhere at the Court, where Featherstone’s giddy promises of playfulness are translated into bright splashes of colour. The bar, once gloomily sophisticated, is now a riot of yellows, blues and greens. One whole wall is given over to an image of a bright green hedge, while paper lanterns glow overhead and the childish mischief of the summer festival finds its expression in a big blackboard covered with multi-coloured magnetic letters. Burgers and chips are the order of the day.
The atmosphere being cultivated in the early weeks of Featherstone’s tenure, in which she has boldly handed the keys to the writers, is one of both opening up and discovery. No longer is the drama confined to the two auditoriums, as yellow and red tags offer up brilliant ‘found plays’ for curious passersby (which can also be discovered online, if you have a few hours to kill). Lost in Theatre, meanwhile, offers a truly new perspective on the Court, inviting audiences into its unexplored nooks and crannies. I have yet to find the time to get lost myself, but the bright circles on the floor enticingly beckon me every time I’m there, calling visitors into the unseen depths of the theatre.
In the work itself, the aesthetic is rough, raw and exciting – and, as a result, slapdash. With the need for polish stripped away, there is the room for both thrilling discovery and messy execution. What I’ve seen of the weekly rep shows is a decidedly mixed bag, unleashing a frighteningly skilled ensemble on a pair of underwhelming plays. Lasha Bugadze’s The President Has Come to See You certainly kicks off proceedings in the right spirit, with Featherstone’s production and the excellent cast lending a shambolic energy to this bonkers Georgian satire. It would probably help to be acquainted with the Georgian politics being skewered, but in this festival context the freshness and excitement of it all is just about enough to carry it – even if the references do fall a little flat.
The second rep show, Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax, fares less well. Hnath’s string of dense scenes asks big, uncomfortable questions about an ageing population, but the play as a whole feels uneven and full to the point of bursting. Everyone talks too much. There are important issues being chewed over here, such the consequences of life-extending medicine, the privileges money can buy and the selfishness of what motivates us – “no one does something for nothing”, we are repeatedly reminded – but this could almost be several different plays. The cast, however, do their best to inject some life into the lengthy scenes, and it remains extraordinary what everyone involved has managed to pull together in just a week.
One of the most exciting elements of Open Court is also mixed, but it makes up for its patchy variety with glorious unpredictability. Surprise Theatre is just what it says it is: it offers its viewers a genuine surprise. In an information-saturated age when we are used to going into the theatre armed with endless details, it’s novel and disarming to be confronted with the unknown in this way. The configuration of the Theatre Upstairs (once again, credit to Lamford) also plays with this novelty, continuing the colour that is splattered throughout the building and concealing each night’s surprise behind mocking red velvet curtains.
The first offering, Cakes and Finance, is a bold and exciting gesture, immediately asking questions about what a theatre building is and what it should be. In a verbatim piece of sorts, Mark Ravenhill reads from interviews with a number of playwrights about their ideal theatre – from plush red seats to a building without walls. While none of the subsequent surprises I’ve seen have quite met the brilliance of this opener, there are some genuinely startling moments; Lauren O’Neill’s delivery of the final, punishing monologue in Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces administers a bruising blow to the gut, while scenes of piercing poignancy and fierceness emerge from The Ship’s Name, put together by a collection of writers of Somali and Eritrean descent. As a viewer, there is also something particularly engaging about feeling one’s way through a piece without any props (the supporting kind, though the theatrical kind are also in short supply), demanding an active act of spectatorship.
Just in case the festival as a whole was not already engaging sufficiently with what the Royal Court as a theatre might mean and might be able to say, the weekly Big Idea pushes playwrights into addressing the important questions – sex, age, death. Alongside these timeless themes, a more obviously timely subject is found in PIIGS, the acronym referring to five of the countries hit hardest by the eurozone crisis: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Pairing writers from each of these countries with their British counterparts, the five nights of theatre engage with the realities of everyday life for those living on the front line of austerity.
The offering from Ireland, penned by Deirdre Kinahan and Kieran Hurley, feels terrifyingly close to home – and not just in the geographical sense. While Ireland is suffering more than the UK, the plight and the conversations feel familiar, if heightened. Around two compassionate, funny but ultimately stark pieces by Kinahan and Hurley, about an attempted protest at an Irish school facing cuts and the erecting of fake shop fronts in Northern Ireland during the G8 respectively, the pair have made the powerful choice to incorporate a selection of verbatim interviews. Their interviewees range from a financial journalist who quotes debt figures to make the eyeballs bulge, to a woman reduced to selling everything and uprooting her family’s life to Canada. The numbers baffle, but the stories move.
Coming full circle to that gesture of opening up, it is also important to acknowledge how much of this work is being made available beyond the four walls of the Royal Court. Each of the Surprise Theatre shows is being broadcast live online on Mondays and Tuesdays and left on the website to view on demand, while the Royal Court Soap Opera collides theatre and television in a series of nightly episodes that can be streamed online – not to mention the treasure trove that is the Found Plays website. While such initiatives always carry the potential danger of eroding the live moment, Featherstone’s intention seems to have less to do with the theatrical event than with the building hosting it, a building that appears increasingly open. Perhaps because of her time operating a building without walls with the National Theatre of Scotland, under Featherstone the walls of the Court suddenly seem a lot less containing.