On the table in front of Ian Rickson is an heirloom: a moth-eaten leather-bound book containing the Royal Court's production schedules since time immemorial, lovingly pencilled in by Rickson's predecessors as artistic director and now by the man himself. There's the Max Stafford-Clark era of gung-ho political engagement, then the Stephen Daldry epoch, characterised by showmanship and sensationalism. Three years in, 37-year-old Rickson won't speculate how his own tenure in charge might be remembered. "I've no idea at all," he says.
In the two years since it re-opened at its Sloane Square home, the Court has been feeling around for a new niche. Rickson is content to pronounce dead the Daldry-led "in-yer-face theatre" phenomenon (think Trainspotting, Sarah Kane, Shopping & F***ing), but its bloodied corpse continues to twitch – the final play in the Theatre Upstairs this season is called Fucking Games. "We're at a pregnant moment," says Rickson, "which will lead us into something else. I wouldn't pre-empt what that may be, but I hope that formal experimentation will be part of it."
Rickson is keen on formal experiment. Several successes under his directorship – Caryl Churchill's marvellous Far Away, Martin Crimp's The Country – practised it. He dedicated a season to that compulsive exploder of form, Sarah Kane. He invited the script-shy, impro-theatre pioneers Improbable to the Theatre Upstairs, and will repeat the experiment. "I want to have more dialogue with those sorts of company," he claims. The Court's tradition is based around scripts and playwriting, so "the gesture of having the formally playful Improbable in the theatre was really important.
"But I expect more invention anyway from our writers." Churchill's Far Away and Blue Heart, which both played dazzling games with language to make serious dramatic points, light the way. "Caryl understands putting a virus into a play and seeing where it leads. And those plays really speak to younger audiences." Rickson will take the hint. "I've got to respond to that. I don't want to be some traffic warden, allowing certain things in on a whim and not others."
Rickson must be a paid-up Caryl Churchill fan, because her work also chimes with his second ambition for the Court: bringing the politics back. But he doesn't mean agitprop. To Rickson, the gentle, personal dramas that he's brought to prominence at the Court – this is the man who directed Conor McPherson's The Weir – are nevertheless "intensely political". He claims to feel "a very large responsibility indeed" to the Court's tradition of radicalism, even agreeing that his theatre should take a lead in interpreting the current attacks on Afghanistan. "But you have to trust the antennae of a writer," he says. "They'll write about that in their own way. It's not for me to say, let's write plays about war. That's not how you get good art." He cites Far Away, Pinter's Mountain Language and Kane's Blasted as recent Royal Court productions that tackled the issues now plastered across the world's front pages.
Provocative form, political content. When it works, it's theatrical dynamite. Rickson cites as his proudest achievement the fact that "all the major repertory theatres in Europe are doing Royal Court plays, and all the key auteurs are directing our plays." (The grandaddy of them all, Peter Brook, is staging Far Away in Paris.) Rickson wishes to reciprocate, and will mount a major season of new international work at the Court in 2002. New plays by Daldry-era alumni Jez Butterworth and Michael Wynne are also imminent.
But when his directorship doesn't work, does the pressure get to Ian Rickson? His current season has yet to take flight. His gamble to launch first-time writer Leo Butler on the main stage was deemed by critics not to have paid off. Much now rides on his own production of the stalker drama Boy Gets Girl, by the US-based Court regular Rebecca Gilman. (Her most recent play, Spinning Into Butter, an examination of latent racism in American education, divided audiences.) "Of course the high-jump bar is set really high," he admits. "But it has to be, because then you push yourself. You've got to keep challenging yourself to take risks." Then he brandishes the leather-bound book. "I'm not intimidated by this, I'm inspired. It's not about me or about this season. It's about a narrative that begins in 1956 and ebbs and flows and is larger than any of us."
'Boy Gets Girl': Royal Court Downstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), opens Thursday to 15 DecemberReuse content