Vicky Featherstone and Dennis Kelly – all change at the Court
27th August 2013
Vicky Featherstone, new artistic director of the Royal Court, and playwright Dennis Kelly talk about Kelly’s play, which is about to open the Court’s season. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Aug 27, 2013
“It was one of the most desperate things I have ever experienced,” Vicky Featherstone reveals as she casts her mind back to July 17 and its aftermath. This was the day she learnt that the actor Paul Bhattacharjee, who had not been seen since leaving rehearsals at the Royal Court a week earlier, had been found dead, following an apparent suicide, near cliffs in Seaford, East Sussex.
Suddenly the big, bouncy festive start to her tenure as the theatre’s artistic director – the “Open Court” season, in which Bhattacharjee had been playing a valued role as part of the repertory ensemble – hit a brick wall of unexpected grief and collective dejection.
“That day after the police rang me and I had to come into work was the hardest of my professional life,” she continues. “There were hundreds of people working their hardest all round the building – and I realised I had to lead the emotion. There was this awful grief that he had not been able to see a way out – and there were all those questions. ‘Could we have been able to help him?’ ”
Having known and worked with the playwright Sarah Kane, who killed herself in 1999, Featherstone is aware there are no easy answers and no easy consolations either. “Suicide comes at the end of a huge darkness that has to have built up and gone on for a long period of time. I think that’s what we felt terrible about – that over the months up to that point no one had seen it. We all go ‘Could we have done anything?’ ” She pauses, trails off: “But he was happy that day.”
Joined by the playwright Dennis Kelly in her office overlooking Sloane Square to discuss her first formal season, which begins with Kelly’s latest work – The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas – she appears upbeat, as does he, and there seems no point in dampening the mood by lingering on this terribly upsetting event. But Bhattacharjee’s death underlines the huge responsibilities that come with running the most influential new writing house in Britain and arguably even the world.
Featherstone, 46, maintains that the job is less daunting than setting up the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006, which was a widely hailed triumph, even if some north of the border took this Surrey-raised interloper to task for a perceived Anglocentric neglect of the Scottish canon, a campaign of criticism she describes as “bullying”. She detects little added pressure, too, from being the Court’s first female artistic director: “If this was the 1970s it might be different but I feel I’ve been around a powerful generation of women since I was born.”
And yet Dominic Cooke’s middle-class-baiting, hit-spewing regime is a tough act to follow, and the burgeoning nature of Britain’s playwriting culture itself means there will be difficult choices ahead. Even if her self-defined mission sounds simple – “I need to find a range of different voices and enable the writers to ask questions about the world today in the most theatrical way possible” – deciding who’s in and who’s out invites Judgment of Solomon-style agonies. “On average at the Royal Court we put on 12 plays a year – so we have to reject hundreds of scripts, writers, commissions. That’s a really hard thing to do.”
One of those writers who has experienced what’s it’s like to be left out in the cold is Kelly. Nowadays, his is a name to conjure with. He has penned a string of powerful, provocative plays, including Osama the Hero (2004), which Featherstone first brought to the stage while running Paines Plough. He has worked magic – and is making a mint – with his book for the hit musical Matilda. And he has wowed TV viewers with his violent, bleakly imaginative Channel 4 drama Utopia, a second series of which is in development. And yet he’s only now making his Court debut at 42.
His potential wasn’t seized on by the powers that be when he was starting out, relatively late, in his thirties after a succession of dead-end jobs. Although he was brought up on a council estate in Barnet, his refusal to play by naturalistic or social realistic rules – and offer up an “authentic” voice – meant he didn’t fit the role of a “Royal Court writer”, at least as it was perceived at the start of the millennium.
“If I’m honest this is what I’ve always wanted,” he says, displaying a big grin and no discernible ire. “I can’t lie. This is the most exciting thing that has happened in my career. If you write the kind of plays I like, that p— a few people off, really you probably want those plays to be on here. When I was starting I’d always be thinking ‘Have they read my play?’ and there came a moment when I accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. It always felt like the one theatre I had no contact with.”
Billed as a “dark morality tale”, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas recounts the life story of an ordinary man, from childhood to old age, who commits to the very simple principle of lying as a modus operandi. “It occurred to me one day that if I just lied, I could get everything I wanted,” Kelly explains. “I thought maybe if you cut free of morality you’d have power over people. My next thought was you’d become a monster.”
One notable thing about the unusually named protagonist (pronounced George) is that he is born in 1973 – it’s the failures and excesses of Kelly’s own generation, rather than, say, the baby-boomers, that he has in his sights.
“I think we will look back and realise this has been a very odd period,” he says. “After the crash, there were lots of people to blame, but there were many others we didn’t blame. I remember seeing a programme called The Million Pound Property Experiment – you could make a million pounds by selling 10 houses in a row. Now we’d think ‘What the f— were you thinking?’ Our financial culture has been this massive Ponzi scheme and it’s not just money, the whole world is in a sh– state.”
“It puts our generation right at the centre,” Featherstone agrees. “We were able to ask questions at the time. Did we? And what are we doing now? That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen on stage.”
With so much upheaval at home and abroad, it seems unlikely to be the last time. One thing they’re both adamant about, though, is that theatre is no medium for easy finger-pointing or party political point-scoring.
“I don’t want anyone to tell me what to think as a member of the audience and I don’t believe I should tell the audience that,” Kelly says. “Your job is to write what you believe is the truth. Good writing in a way is an attempt to tell a secret about yourself that you wouldn’t say in front of people. It could be the smallest thing in the world. ‘In my dark and brooding heart, I feel like this… Is that OK? Is that all right?’.”