mon 19/04/2021

The Culture Show: Vicky Featherstone - All Change at the Royal Court, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Culture Show: Vicky Featherstone - All Change at the Royal Court, BBC Two

The Culture Show: Vicky Featherstone - All Change at the Royal Court, BBC Two

New Royal Court artistic director deserves better than a puff piece

Regime change at the Royal Court as Vicky Featherstone takes the reins

I guess the BBC can't afford researchers or fact-checkers these days. If they could, perhaps something of substance might have arisen from their vacuous Culture Show profile of Vicky Featherstone, the gifted new artistic director of the Royal Court. Oh, and they have might have got the theatre's actual postcode right (SW1W 8AS, as per the Court website), rather than insisting twice on air that it's in (neighbouring) SW3.

I guess the BBC can't afford researchers or fact-checkers these days. If they could, perhaps something of substance might have arisen from their vacuous Culture Show profile of Vicky Featherstone, the gifted new artistic director of the Royal Court. Oh, and they have might have got the theatre's actual postcode right (SW1W 8AS, as per the Court website), rather than insisting twice on air that it's in (neighbouring) SW3. I mean, if you're going to be so careless with the details, what hope is there for the bigger picture? 

Precious little, on the evidence of this half-hour summation of a still-embryonic regime. It bypassed any number of matters of actual interest in favour of footage of Featherstone taking the tube (wow!), and presenter Clemency Burton-Hill tucking into a designer cappuccino which, for all I know, cost nearly as much as a production at the Sloane Square venue's invaluable Theatre Upstairs.

The programme wasted no time informing us that Featherstone is the first female artistic director in the Court's vaunted history, only to then provide precisely zero elaboration or context that might situate that fact for viewers. In fact, Featherstone joins Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle and Josie Rourke at the Donmar as one of an array of hugely capable women taking the theatrical reins across London, though you'd never know as much from what was proffered here. As for Featherstone's truly intriguing past running the National Theatre of Scotland, that got barely a look-in beyond a cursory clip or two from Black Watch that showed women in the audience chuckling at blokeish profanities. What that has to do with Featherstone's preparedness for life at the Court is anyone's guess. Her background and education were raised and then instantly dropped. Um, some facts please? 

We were told again and again what a "risk-taker" this director is without exploring in any meaningful way the challenges she has faced to date. Her mainstage Court debut, Dennis Kelly's The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas (pictured above, photo: Manuel Harlan), remains in my view one of the most startling if contentious plays of the year, not least in a brilliantly realised, deliberately static opening half-hour that pushes narrative technique to provocative extremes. But that presumably doesn't make for effective TV when you can quote several cast members talking about how down-to-earth their director is, when what one really wants to see is more of that director at work.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Featherstone's six-week Open Court season (its logo pictured below) this past summer, which made up in 2013 for the absence felt, post-Olympics, of something special to mark out the London theatre as the Globe's Bardathon did last year. It really was extraordinary to find an entire building turned inside out in hot pursuit of theatre in all its various forms, alongside an array of speedily produced premieres, at least two of which (Talk Show and Mint), evinced real staying power. (The late-night OAP karaoke, meanwhile, remains a very special memory.) 

That repertory season was marked out near its end by the sorrowful death of company member Paul Bhattacharjee, an event not mentioned in the programme's smiley onward march. Nor was there a single mention of Featherstone's predecessor, Dominic Cooke, and how her regime might follow on or not from his, given Cooke's desire to put the middle-class constituency that is the Court's immediate public back centre-stage. Instead, we got a lament about not enough women playwrights at the Court - hilarious given that most of Cooke's major dramatic finds were women, from Penelope Skinner to E V Crowe, to name just two of many - and unexceptional affirmations that a Court show set in Peckham might have played better in SE15 (better check my postcodes there!) than it did in Sloane Square. Is that news?

But why go on? The entire show was cheerful and bland, two adjectives one would never apply to the aesthetic of this theatre itself. The playhouse, and its able leader, deserve better. 

Presenter Clemency Burton-Hill is seen tucking into a designer cappuccino that for all I know cost nearly as much as a production at the Sloane Square venue's invaluable Theatre Upstairs

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