A last look back (in awe, not anger)

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The Independent Culture
Toasts to the Royal Court of the past and to the Royal Court of the future were drunk last Saturday night at a party where the English Stage Company bade a temporary farewell to its Sloane Square theatre which is now to undergo a two-year Lottery-funded refurbishment. Everyone who had worked at the Court had been invited. In a moving and wry speech, Jocelyn Herbert - the great designer and oldest surviving link with the company's celebrated Fifties origins - revealed that the young people in the office had even sent out invitations to George Devine, the English Stage Company's legendary founder (d 1966), and the man with whom he launched the enterprise, Tony Richardson (d 1991).

It was indeed a ghost-haunted occasion. Gutted, with its stores and stage levelled and its geography reversed so that the circle (on which a rock band performed) became the focus, the Court had the look of some spooky ballroom, much too small to contain so many memories. It also, as John Mortimer, the ESC's chairman, drolly pointed out, resembled a staging by Stephen Daldry, the Court's maverick artistic director.

Daldry's taste for the radical rearrangement of theatres (in productions like The Kitchen and Rat in the Skull) can now be seen at the Ambassadors, one of the Court's temporary homes, which has been ingeniously converted into two spaces: one on the stage behind the "iron" (or safety curtain), the other at dress-circle height, with a new bar and potential performing space in what used to be the stalls.

Mucking about with a myth-saturated theatre like the Royal Court is a different matter, though. The presence at the party of so many former artistic directors (from Bill Gaskill downwards) and of a line of playwrights stretching from Arnold Wesker was a token of how strong the sense of tradition is here. A building's soul is all too easy to destroy: will it survive the refurbishment? There had, apparently, been excited talk of getting rid of the proscenium arch and creating a flexible experimental space. Several people I spoke to (including the theatre consultant Iain Mackintosh) believe that Bill Gaskill made a decisive contribution to changing the thinking on this when he declared, at a consultancy meeting of former Royal Court directors, that "new writing needs the authority of the past".

To preserve the sense of a dialectic or tension between past and present, old and new, the Court will keep its identity as a Victorian playhouse. The proscenium stays, albeit 18 inches wider. The seating capacity remains at 400, since the bigger you go, the less you can sustain risk and daring in the programming. There will be some flexibility, however, Iain Mackintosh revealed, because the new seating will be benches that can be converted into roomier seats by the lowering of an arm rest. And if the right to fail is a principle that will be preserved in the refurbished building, so is the right - which we've all exercised at the Court - to sit in a bad seat with a poor view at a reduced price.

We listened to a haunting montage of classic moments from Court plays and controversies, dominated by the lecherous, insinuating sound of Laurence Olivier's Archie Rice. At the end of this sequence, the place that launched Look Back in Anger suddenly echoed to Oasis's recording of "Don't Look Back in Anger". Whether that constitutes a "dialectic" between the old and new, I wouldn't like to say, but it had a crude potency. I expect that John Osborne, up on his cloud, is even now penning a letter to The Spectator about it.

n `Ashes to Ashes' runs to 26 Oct and `Shopping and Fucking' to 19 Oct. Both plays are at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors, West Street. Booking: 0171-730 1745