"Playwrights are constantly teaching us about ourselves in a very direct and powerful way," enthuses Ian Rickson. "That's the joy of my job." The job in question is artistic director of London's Royal Court Theatre, and ever since George Devine first held the post in 1956, the theatre has presented some of the freshest and most incendiary work on the British stage. Devine sought out "hard-hitting, uncompromising writers whose plays are stimulating, provocative and exciting". In his first year, the Court was the birthplace of the original angry young man in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. And from Edward Bond and Arnold Wesker, through to the "in-yer-face" dramatists Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill in the "Nasty Nineties", and right up to the present day, Devine's legacy lives on.
Today, the theatre's red neon sign above Sloane Square proudly proclaims the extension of the production of Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde. With its mix of sexual politics, filmic homage, acerbic wit and stunning high-tech design, the play has been selling out since it opened in April, and a West End transfer is in the offing. But while Hitchcock Blonde's setting switches between a sun-baked Greek villa and a shadowy celluloid past, the rest of the Court's summer season has a more gritty, urban bent. Ché Walker's Flesh Wound, set on a council estate; Fallout, by Roy Williams, billed as "a slice of contemporary Britain"; Mick Mahoney's Food Chain, about a working-class London family who have everything except contentment – all suggest an uncompromising view of the seamier side of city life.
But this apparent thematic link is not, says Rickson, the result of deliberate planning. "When we programme, we're guided by writers' clairvoyance. The best writers warn us about what we might become, or glimpse what we could become. These plays are all essentially urban, but they also reflect a search for responsibility."
Flesh Wound previews from tonight at the Theatre Upstairs. Ché Walker's play sees a family torn apart by a brutalising environment, yet his approach is one of exuberant lyricism. "His speeches are like arias, and however squalid things may become, there's always joy. Often, working-class characters in drama speak in a limited way. I love the way that Ché affords articulacy to the marginalised," says Rickson
Rickson himself directs Fallout, which opens in the Court's main house on 17 June. The play is the third for the theatre by the award-winning playwright Roy Williams. Hinging on the discovery of a boy's body and the investigation into how he came to die, it immediately recalls the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the Damilola Taylor case. "It's a big play about responsibility, justice and belonging," says Rickson. "It's ambitious, urgent and powerful. I think it's a major cultural event." Meanwhile, from 23 June, Mick Mahoney's Food Chain brings an "almost Marxist" sensibility to the Theatre Upstairs. "It's about the terrible restlessness beneath the desire to acquire belongings," Rickson says. "There's a frenetic edge to how the characters speak, and a longing beneath the comedy that says something contemporary about how identity can be wrapped up in material things."
Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog also has an urban setting, albeit an American rather than a British one. The production, which opens at the Theatre Downstairs on 11 August, comes from New York's Public Theater, where it was critically feted last year (Variety called it "utterly mesmerising"). It tells the story of two brothers involved in street crime and divided by bitter sibling rivalry. "It's epic," says Rickson, "and yet it only has two actors. Its storytelling is compelling, and it's empowering for an audience because you're really asked to use your imagination."
Apart from its bleak cityscapes, there's another striking feature of this season: the involvement of actors better known for work outside the theatre. Hitchcock Blonde features the Bond girl Rosamund Pike. Tamzin Outhwaite is in Flesh Wound. Linda Robson from Birds of a Feather is in Food Chain. "It's not a deliberate policy," says Rickson. "You get the play, then you find the best people to be in it." Surely, a familiar face doesn't do any harm at the box office? Actually, he says, "names" make little difference at the Theatre Upstairs – it's so small that shows generally sell out regardless. But high-profile performers can be a bonus in another way: "A well-known name can rope an audience in to a difficult play." But why do so many actors want to work at the Royal Court for a fraction of what they could earn in TV or film? Probably for the same reasons that audiences keep coming to see the plays. A visit to the Court is a challenge: it may be exhilarating or harrowing, stomach-turning or heart-rending, but it's unlikely to be dull. SMReuse content