Keeping it Real: Stories and the Telling of Stories at the Royal Court

Dan Rebellato

At the conference on Crimp’s work that Vicky Angelaki and I organised at the Royal Court Theatre in January 2013, Martin Crimp made an interesting and important distinction between different strands of his own work: some of the plays ‘dramatized stories’, while others ‘dramatized the telling of stories’. What I take him to mean by this is that some of his plays – such as Dealing with Clair (1988)1, No One Sees the Video (1991), Getting Attention (1992), and The Country (2000) – seem to be representations of a fictional world given force and shape through the writing; others of his plays – such as Attempts on Her Life (1997), Face to the Wall (2002), Fewer Emergencies (2005) and The City (2008) – are about the processes of their own storytelling and such elements of fictionality as they possess are placed, we might say, under erasure by the riddling self-consciousness that the texts display.

This isn’t a wholly secure distinction. In the play then running in the Royal Court main house, Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness (2012), both strands were evident: the first and third parts had locations and characters that suggested an imagined fictional world; the second part was quite different, the cast speaking directly to the audience, illustrating five areas of contemporary ideological neurosis (selfhood, security, trauma, therapy, and beauty); in the text, the lines are not attributed to particular characters and, indeed, in this first production the whole cast learned all of the lines and chose, each night, where they would sit and who would say the next line. Although the stage set resembled a kind of TV studio and one might have been tempted to explain the second act by saying that this was a group of characters on The Jeremy Kyle Show,2 the choral nature of the performance (and the performance of four songs) prevented full absorption of the stage picture into a fictional world.

But even that division does not entirely work. In the first act, the play begins with a family sitting down for Christmas dinner and, for a few fleeting moments, it looked almost as though we are in Ayckbourn territory, with glimpses of barely-suppressed middle-class tensions scything around the turkey. But then Uncle Bob arrives. The stage direction is characteristically non-committal about the nature of his arrival: ‘Enter from the background where he has silently appeared: Uncle Bob’. ‘The background’ is an ambiguous phrase here, since it does not clearly either refer to the stage or to the presumed fictional world: it could mean something like ‘Uncle Bob enters upstage’ or ‘Uncle Bob enters from the kitchen’. In Dominic Cooke’s production, Uncle Bob came through the wall; or rather, since Cooke’s artful misdirection of the moment meant that I didn’t actually see him enter, he must have come through the wall. Uncle Bob seems as perplexed by this as we are. ‘What are you doing here, Robert?’ asks Mum. He replies: ‘Well to be frank with you, I really no idea. I thought I would just suddenly appear, so I did. I suddenly appeared’.3  It’s a very peculiar moment.

Or is it? Uncle Bob seems to be a character who barely seems to exist before he comes on stage. This is surely also true of any fictional character in any play; they have no substantial existence until they are embodied onstage by an actor. The peculiarity is how we ordinarily negotiate the radical break relationship between onstage (embodied) and offstage (linguistic) fictional worlds. What Crimp is doing in this moment is troubling a set of distinctions in conventional realist theatre practice by pushing them to breaking point; I have elsewhere observed that Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, every performance of which will be radically different and offers no clear characters, locations or narrative structure, is ‘both a strikingly influential innovation in dramaturgy and the most typical play in the world’.4 Here he’s at it again, asking fundamental questions about the most ordinary ways we construct fiction in the theatre. In the Republic of Happiness both ‘dramatizes stories’ and ‘dramatizes the telling of stories’.

In the Republic of Happiness, like most of Martin Crimp’s plays since 1991, had its premiere at the Royal Court. This might seem anomalous; in some quarters, the Court has a reputation for straightforward realism. It’s not hard to see why that might be: its founding success was with the (mostly) realist play Look Back in Anger (1956) and the early plays of Arnold Wesker are written in a realist mode. I have elsewhere tried to show how the early years of the Court were marked by a closing down of any directorial or design impulses that would conflict with the reproduction of the play’s fictional world.5 Through the sixties, Peter Gill made it his business to rediscover D. H. Lawrence, building to the programming of a celebrated trilogy of his plays in 1968. The key Court discoveries of the period were Edward Bond and David Storey, whose early works are fiercely realist in tone. The generation of political playwrights in the 1970s were not always realist in the stage pictures they wanted to create, but they were absolutely realists in wanting to find new forms to represent reality on the stage. Some of the Court’s key feminist plays (or plays by women) of the 1980s were in realist mode or deployed realism for particular effects: Top Girls, Rita Sue and Bob Too, Masterpieces, Low-Level Panic. In the 1990s, many of the most well-regarded plays by Joe Penhall, Conor McPherson, Rebecca Prichard, Nick Grosso, Judy Upton were realistic. Even plays like Blasted and Shopping and Fucking have realist impulses and elements. Under Ian Rickson as under Max Stafford-Clark, a certain kind of gritty urban realism was the Court’s house style, and it was a style in which the early plays of writers like Roy Williams, Simon Stephens, Leo Butler, David Eldridge, and Richard Bean flourished. It’s easy to imagine the Court as a place of immaculately-realised pictures of the world, a place to dramatize stories – but to dramatize the telling of stories? Not so much.

But this picture is false. Less often acknowledged is an equally persistent strain of work that rejects representational realism. This was a significant presence at the Court right from the start in an enthusiastic embrace of theatrical absurdism: in 1957, a year after the English Stage Company took over the Royal Court, they premiered two Beckett plays (in French: Fin de Partie and Acte Sans Paroles) and a month later gave the British premiere of Ionesco’s The Chairs. At the end of the year, they gave British absurdist N. F. Simpson his stage premiere with a Sunday-Night-Without-Décor performance of A Resounding Tinkle. All three authors figures in the 1958 repertoire. That year, the Writers’ Group began as a means of ‘training’ playwrights, though, in the hands of Keith Johnstone, it also became a forum for exploring improvisation – at that point forbidden in performance due to the Lord Chamberlain’s prescriptions – and George Devine contributed an important workshop on the use of masks.6 These influences were manifested in John Arden’s somewhat experimental play The Happy Haven (1960) which makes considerable use of masks and, perhaps more radically in Eleven Men Dead at Hola Camp (1959), a mostly improvised performance, employing agitprop techniques and songs (by Wole Soyinka) to stir up an audience about the notorious treatment of Mau Mau prisoners by the British Army in Kenya.7 Ann Jellicoe’s entry into the Writer’s Group was secured by her writing of The Sport of My Mad Mother (1958), a play that breaks up its nods to realism with poetry and jazz to create a jangling and portrait of contemporary youth that seems both of its time and quite beyond it.

The Absurdists mostly lost their purchase on the Royal Court’s repertoire by the mid-1960s and for a while a loose naturalism dominated that stage. (It’s striking that Britain’s great playwriting innovator, Harold Pinter, had nothing at the Court until the mid-1990s, except for a brief double bill of The Dumb Waiter and The Room in 1960, two plays which, if you squint hard and block up your ears, could just about be described as realistic.) Revivals of Lawrence, Granville Barker, and Chekhov sat alongside the new realism of Storey, Bond and others. Outside the Court, the theatre was changing significantly, particularly in the emergence of the fringe, the arts lab touring circuit, and an emerging counter-culture in which theatrical realism played little or no part.

The response from the Court was twofold: first by opening the Theatre Upstairs as a more ‘fringe’ experimental space. With the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s role in theatre censorship in 1968, it became possible to produce more improvisatory, collaborative, sometimes throwaway work, and, crucially, some of the more left-field playwriting coming out of the Off-Off-Broadway movement in America, such as La Turista (1969) by Sam Shepard and a mainstage run for The Bread and Puppet Theatre later that year. This in turn gave a platform for younger playwrights, schooled in the alternative theatre movement, like Howard Brenton or Heathcote Williams, whose AC/DC (1970) was the first play to move from the Theatre Upstairs to the main house, and is an irresistible glimpse of the counter-culture language and ideas at the dawn of the seventies. The characters, if they can be called characters, appear to be assemblages of psychic forces linked, in some mysterious way, by some kind of group mind. At one point, Sadie announces:

Sittin round with a couplea cracker fags gossipin about the brain. I had a sweet tight little high goin, you muthafukkas. YOU BLEW IT. YOU MUTHAFUKKAS! YOU BLEW IT!


I gotta realign myself.


I gotta get the current flowing right. (Picking up some photos from the table and the wall, and rolling them into a tube) Whole earth got an exoskeletal nervous system. Geodetic. You gotta keep in with that. Terrestrial currents. I gotta realign myself. (She stands up on the table.) I’m done I’ll get rid of all your teevee heebie jeebies. I am gonna douse all your negative juice with the only fuckin amnesiac weapon there is. All these freakpuke radiations, making you like this. I’m Gonna douse them.


(She rips open her fly, and shoves the roll of photos up her cunt.)8

The mixture of vaguely ecological science, drug slang, anti-psychiatry, and politics in the paranoid style is typical of the era. The published text, 25 years before Attempts on Her Life, tries to disrupt the neutrality of the printed page with rapid shifts of typography, blending of dialogue and stage directions, titled scenes, multimedia interludes, and radical clashes of linguistic register (the last speech appears to be in an entirely invented language and orthography, rendering it dubious whether it could ever be performed in the conventional sense). What AC/DC does not pretend to be is an example of conventional realism; it is hard to decide what fictional world, if any, it is trying to represent.

The Court’s own playwrights began to pick up on the new aesthetic: Bond’s Early Morning (1968) was a world away from the realism of Saved (1965), while John Osborne’s perverse attempt to write a kind of Happening resulted in A Sense of Detachment (1972), which manages both to stand as an emblem of Osborne’s perverse truculence and a genuine determination to push at the edges of his theatrical instincts. The fringe’s new spirit of collective creation had a brief flurry at Court with The Enoch Show (1969) at the Theatre Upstairs devised by nine writers, directors, and journalists and later with two Portable Theatre shows, Lay By (1971) and England’s Ireland (1972), each collaboratively written by seven writers. In these shows, the ragged, jagged juxtapositions of styles served to dramatise the Situationist idea that a ‘realist’ view the world may be delusional or ideological and that challenging how we understand the world is a revolutionary act.

The Court’s second response to the alternative theatre movement was to invite it in. The Come Together Festival in Autumn 1970, curated (we would now say) by Bill Bryden, featured The People Show, Brighton Combination, CAST, The Pip Simmons Theatre Group, Ken Campbell’s Roadshow, Stuart Brisley, a Stockhausen premiere and various rock bands. The season was not warmly welcomed by the grandees of the English Stage Company9 but it marked the beginning of a cautious opening up of the Court’s work. In the 1990s, the Court ran an annual season of new performance work under the banner of the Barclays New Stages Festival (named after its controversial sponsor; Caryl Churchill and David Hare resigned from the English Stage Company board over the political implications of the deal);10 thus, through the 1990s the Royal Court played host to companies and artists like Rose English, Graeme Miller, Desperate Optimists, Pete Brooks, Blast Theory, and many others. When Vicky Featherstone took over as Artistic Director of the theatre in 2013, her first act was to create a festival entitled Open Court which enormously multiplied the definitions of what a script, a writer and a performance might mean. All of these initiatives battled against the Royal Court’s reputation for down-the-line realism. The Royal Court has not always just dramatized stories; it has dramatized the telling of stories too.

But just as it is impossible, finally, to make clean divisions between these categories in Martin Crimp’s own work, this bifurcated characterisation of the Court’s work is overly simplistic. For one thing I have left unexplained my key term. What is realism? At its broadest philosophical sense, it indicates a commitment to the existence of a real world, a belief which covers most of the artists who have worked for the Royal Court (though maybe not Martin Crimp, depending whether we take the Baudrillard epigraph to Attempts on Her Life to be endorsement or irony11). In this broad sense, most of Modernism – from Symbolism to Brecht – is realist and it would certainly cover the work of Caryl Churchill, a writer often thought of critiquing realism in her work. More narrowly, it might indicate either a determination to represent reality on the stage or a determination to represent the world using realistic methods, but these are not the same thing.

How these two things might become uncoupled can be shown by contrasting two Royal Court plays that are, respectively, typical of their own eras. In Magnificence (1973), Howard Brenton employs the deliberately ragged bricolage of representational styles that I described above; the apparent realism of the first scene (as a squatter breaks into the flat near the beginning of the play, the stage direction insists dangerously on ‘Real glass’12) is immediately replaced by a music hall front-curtain routine to represent the police raid, which is in turn replaced by a piece of pastoral satire to depict the effete corruption of High Conservatism. However, the play does not go the full postmodern distance to imply that there is no reality beneath the clash of representations. On the other hand, in her production of Crimp’s The City thirty-five years later, Katie Mitchell used her characteristic quasi-Stanislavskian methods to ground the actors’ performance in psychological and contextual realism; the play, however, foregrounded the fictional world’s fictionality in all its superficiality, provisionality and precarious dependence on a writer’s inadequate gifts. The City seems deeply sceptical about the possibility of representing reality at all. In that sense the approach of Magnificence may be described as a realism of ends without a realism of means while The City deployed a realism of means without a realism of ends.

A commitment to representing the real world can easily be seen, in these terms, as taking in a very broad sweep of theatre, indeed almost as broad as that first, philosophical notion of realism. And here we perhaps see the outlines of a Royal Court Theory of Realism. We have established three realisms:

(a) a commitment to the existence of an external world;

(b) a belief that one should represent the real world;

(c) a belief that one should represent the world realistically.

I’ve suggested that (b) and (c) do not entail one another. I think it’s clear, however, that (b) and (c) entail belief in (a), but not the other way around: Lewis Carroll presumably accepted the existence of an external world but didn’t feel he was doing anything contradictory by not representing that world or representing a world realistically in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. However, at the Royal Court, even those who depart from (c) usually seem to adhere to (b). That is, the Royal Court’s particular take on realism seems to be a belief that the existence of the real world somehow obliges you to represent it (whether realistically or not). Royal Court Realism moves from a description to a prescription, from an is to an ought.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson (National Theatre of Scotland, 2005) Photo: Douglas Robertson

The Wonderful World of Dissocia by Anthony Neilson (National Theatre of Scotland, 2005) Photo: Douglas Robertson

To make that less abstract, it’s striking how few Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlands there have been at the Court; that is, wholly counterfactual plays that offer alternatives to reality and imply nothing about our own world.13 The nearest thing I’ve ever seen to Lewis Carroll at the Court was the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia (2005, Royal Court 2007), the first half of which plunges its heroine down something like a rabbit-hole into a Carrollian fantasy world of paradoxes, puns and absurdities: we meet two ‘insecurity guards’ (‘Are we boring you?’/’We are! We’re boring her fucking rigid!’14), a goat that everyone blames for all the bad things that happen (‘Oh … you’re a scapegoat.15) [pictured], and a Lost Property Office where she meets two people trying to retrieve an argument and their inhibitions. So far, so Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

But in the second half, we have a complete change of style, location and story. We are watching a series of scenes showing a woman who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital, the same woman who we watched take her trip to Dissocia in the first act. She is tended to by medical staff; she receives visitors; she sleeps; she has manic episodes. Neilson stipulates: ‘Whereas the acting in Act One is stylised, in Act Two the style should be as naturalistic as possible’.16 We realise that the events of the first act were taking place inside her head. The absurdities of Act One become psychological traumas in Act Two: the war with the Black Dog King that is ravaging Dissocia, the sexual assault she escapes at the hooves of the Scapegoat, the near-subliminal sounds and images of domestic violence all populate a realistic psychological landscape of depression, perhaps triggered by a traumatic episode in her life. In other words, the apparent rejection of (b) in the first act is consumed within an affirmation of (b) in the second. Although The Wonderful World of Dissocia did not originate at the Royal Court, it played there for a full run during a tour, and fits in many ways with the Royal Court aesthetic. Playfulness with form is almost always a kind of reaffirmation of realism, a way of representing the world and not an exercise in either formal experimentation for its own sake or the production of story for its own sake. Without Act Two, Dissocia would never have got onto the Court’s stage; it would have been rejected as irresponsibly anti-realist. At the heart of the Court’s realist aesthetic, then, is a sense of ethical responsibility: the world must be represented on its stages.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even when the Court is most inward-looking, it always does so to investigate the nature of its covenant with the contemporary world. The moments when it has revived its ‘classics’ – Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance in 1965, Roots in 1967, Look Back in Anger in 1968, Saved and The Pope’s Wedding in 1985, Top Girls in 1992, The Kitchen in 1994, The Changing Room, Hysteria and Rat in the Skull in 1996, Blasted in 2001, and Chicken Soup with Barley in 2011 – have been opportunities less to celebrate its talent-spotting prowess as to confirm the power of these plays to capture the state of our culture. Neil Bartlett’s Night after Night (1993) was implicitly a critique of the Royal Court at its origin, exploring the lives of gay men in and around theatrical London in the mid-1950s and looking at the rather unCourtly pleasures that theatre might offer for that community. Tim Crouch’s The Author (2009) reflected on the style of playwriting that emerged in the mid-90s, the so-called In Yer Face theatre, and offered a powerful and provocative critique of the ethical value of representing the extremes of violence and abuse. In both cases, even if they divested themselves of the trappings of theatrical realism, the Royal Court’s self-reflection gives rise to a deeper kind of ethical realism.

The Royal Court’s reputation for realism is, therefore, somewhat misunderstood. In fact it is not the conventionalities of stage naturalism that it is best known for: some of its most famous ‘naturalist’ productions were permeated with Brechtian touches, such as the visible lighting rig in The Kitchen and the Lawrence Trilogy or the permanent surround visible at the fabled first night of Look Back in Anger. The Royal Court’s realism is less a matter of theatrical aesthetics as of cultural politics. It inheres in a vision of the theatre’s persistent acknowledgement of reality, a commitment to represent that reality, and, more often than is generally acknowledged, to reflect critically on those means of representation. In short, the Court’s realism lies in dramatizing real stories and dramatizing the telling of those real stories.


Thanks to Chris Megson, Neil Murray, Gareth Beedle and Adam Roberts for their help with this article.

Dan Rebellato is playwriting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway University of London. His books include 1956 and All That, Theatre & Globalization, The Suspect Culture Book and Contemporary European Theatre Directors. He currently working on Naturalist Theatre: A New Cultural History and an adaptation of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart for BBC Radio 4.


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  1. All of the plays mentioned in this article have been performed at the Royal Court and the date given always refers to their Court performance, regardless whether they or the production originated elsewhere.
  2. For those unfamiliar with this twenty-first century British phenomenon, think The Jerry Springer Show.
  3. Martin Crimp, In the Republic of Happiness (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), p. 19.
  4. Dan Rebellato, ‘Exit the Author’, in Contemporary British Theatre: Breaking New Ground, ed. by Vicky Angelaki (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013), p. 25.
  5. Dan Rebellato, 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama (London: Routledge, 1999), chapter 3.
  6. Ann Jellicoe, ‘The Writer’s Group’, in At the Royal Court: 25 Years of the English Stage Company, ed. by Richard Findlater (Ambergate: Amber Lane, 1981), pp. 52-56.
  7. Eleven Men Dead at Hola Camp was presented on a Sunday night under Club Theatre conditions, which, by convention, evaded the Lord Chamberlain’s restrictions on improvisation. See Richard Findlater, At the Royal Court: 25 Years of the English Stage Company (Ambergate: Amber Lane, 1981), p. 47 and Ruth Little and Emily McLaughlin, The Royal Court Theatre: Inside Out (London: Oberon, 2007), pp. 53-55.
  8. Heathcote Williams, AC/DC (London: Calder, 1972), pp. 110-111.
  9. Little and McLaughlin, p. 139. Lindsay Anderson and Anthony Page, first-wave directors at the 1950s Royal Court, were bitterly opposed to the new generation of writers who had emerged from this milieu. Anderson walked out of Brenton’s Magnificence noisily explaining, ‘I’ve had enough of this shit’ (p. 166).
  10. Philip Roberts, The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage, Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 208-209. Churchill was also vocal in her criticisms of the Court for accepting sponsorship from the Jerwood Foundation that meant changing the name of the theatre to ‘The Jerwood Theatres at the Royal Court’ (ibid., pp. 228-229).
  11. Martin Crimp, Plays 2 (London: Faber & Faber, 2005), p. 198.
  12. Howard Brenton, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 37.
  13. There is a – fairly slender – tradition in Carroll scholarship of reading the Alice books as satirical commentaries on the culture and politics of the time. Whether they are realist in that sense or not, it does not seem to me impossible to conceive of a book that engages only minimally with our own world, so perhaps Alice might stand here as a placeholder for such a book.
  14. Anthony Neilson, Plays: 2 (London: Methuen Drama, 2008), p. 211.
  15. Ibid., p. 231.
  16. Ibid., p. 269.

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