Dramatic renaissance of the Royal Court

Fifteen nominations at the Laurence Olivier Awards are a fitting recognition of the theatre's radicalism. Arifa Akbar reports

Just over two years ago the Royal Court found itself languishing in a theatrical backwater with little hope of escape. Critics claimed the venue in Sloane Square, away from the buzz of the West End, had "lost its way", staging an endless stream of forgettable kitchen-sink dramas that left its fast-diminishing audiences at risk of falling asleep in its luxurious leather seats.

It was a far cry from the theatre's glory days, when, from the mid-1950s onwards, it pioneered the best of new British writing and set Theatreland alight by staging the first production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

Yesterday it was confirmed that the Royal Court has firmly reasserted itself at the vanguard of theatre when it was nominated for 15 prestigious Laurence Olivier Awards, placing it ahead of its subsidised rivals, the Donmar Warehouse and the National Theatre, and the commercial sector.

The Royal Court has been nominated for four productions – Jerusalem, a "state of the nation" play directed by the Royal Court's former artistic director, Ian Rickson; Enron, a work about corporate dysfunction; The Priory, a comedic critique of society anxiety; and Cock, a play by Mike Bartlett about sexual identity. Jerusalem and Enron have already been recognised in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and Critics Circle Awards, and have also been transferred to the West End, giving them exposure to far wider audiences.

Nica Burns, the president of the Society of London Theatres, said the Royal Court's achievement was all the more sensational as it distinguished itself in 2009, the year that the popularity of drama grew to such an extent it was dubbed "the year of the play".

She said Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem was a jewel of a play for the theatre that has been hailed by some senior voices in the industry as being in "Shakespeare territory".

Other venues will no doubt be envious of the Royal Court's remarkable return to form, much of which has been put down to the dynamic leadership and astute re-programming by its artistic director, Dominic Cooke, who arrived from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. The theatre critic Mark Shenton claims it is "very difficult" to attract large audiences with new writing. Yet Cooke pulled it off.

When Cooke arrived he was already familiar with the Court's inner structures, having worked there part time for a few years. At the time the theatre was in dire need of an image revamp. At its lowest point in the late 1990s, its capacity had shrunk by about half and it was pilloried as a place for cultural tourism where audiences alleviated their middle-class guilt with an endless stream of dramas about working-class life.

Cooke said he deliberately set out to shake up its programming and made "interventions" that encouaged greater creative freedom for its playwrights.

"There were various things that I did in terms of internal structuring to get the plays coming through from the young writers' groups more quickly than before," he said. "Before I arrived I think there was a problem with the way the theatre was perceived. People seemed to hold the notion that it was a place for naturalist plays set in the North of England that involved unspeakable sexual acts. I wanted to change that perception and also make the programme as eclectic as possible,, so that audiences couldn't second-guess what we were going to do next. There has been a shift in perception now."

On arriving at the theatre he put on two experimental pieces: Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros and Max Frisch's The Arsonists, to encourage young playwrights to diversify. "We did all that we could to encourage a particular kind of play. These revivals were deliberately programmed to be provocative, to suggest 'this is a political play, not a socially realist one'. We wanted to welcome writers who were exploring all forms of drama."

Early on Cooke also spoke of his desire to resurrect the potent genre of political plays, a mission that he feels has been accomplished. "I think writers are now engaging with what is happening more directly in the world. This something that is very much reflected in all four plays that have been nominated."

His future vision is to continue to produce "surprises", and to champion writers who "experiment with the ways they explore subject matter".

The Royal Court opened in 1956 and its third production, Osborne's Look Back in Anger – which had been dismissed by none other than Laurence Olivier the first time he saw it – was defiantly staged to a near empty house but eventually hailed as a groundbreaking drama that changed the face of contemporary theatre.

Just as the instincts of George Devine, its first artistic director, proved true then, so Cooke's are now. He has proved himself to be as brilliant as he is unostentatious, according to Burns. "He is a quiet artistic director," she said, "who has shown extremely extremely good judgement. He's gone for good writing irrespective of the topic."