The Court

Richard Eyre

  • The Long Distance Runner by Tony Richardson
    Faber, 277 pp, £17.50, September 1993, ISBN 0 571 16852 3

‘When we were in the World Cup Final ...’ ‘When we had Huw Wheldon at the BBC ...’ ‘When we were first married ...’ David Hare calls the curators of these arcadias the ‘whenwes’. They guard their territory with a dogged devotion. Although the theatre is a medium that exists entirely in the present tense, it is not immune to the arcadian virus: ‘the National Theatre at the Old Vic’ and ‘Joan Littlewood at Stratford East’ are robust strains, and in the case of Joan Littlewood I believe that there was a ‘genius’, an innocent virtue, that can never be replicated. The work that is done at the National Theatre and the Royal Court is as good as in any preceeding generation, but this fact does not diminish the power of the elegiac rhapsodies which celebrate the Royal Court arcadia – known by its most heavily infected adherents simply, monarchically and without irony, as ‘The Court’.

The golden age of the Royal Court invoked by today’s ‘whenwes’ are the early years of the English Stage Company, started in 1955 by George Devine and Tony Richardson, although the theatre enjoyed at least as luminous a period from 1904 to 1907 when Harley Granville-Barker was its artistic director. The Royal Court is the perfect size for a playhouse; it seats about four hundred people (two hundred fewer than in Granville-Barker’s day), it has perfect acoustics (if one can ignore the occasional rumble of the Circle Line), its proportions are humane, and it is perfectly placed between the (now) ersatz bohemianism of Chelsea and the wealthy austerity of Belgravia. It had a long pedigree as a theatre which played host to refugees from the West End struggling to make a bridge between art and show-business. Granville-Barker’s policy was to put on new plays exclusively, among which were his own and Shaw’s. Of the 32 plays which he presented over a period of three years, including premieres of Galsworthy, Ibsen and Maeterlink, 11 were new plays by Shaw. In addition to running the theatre and writing plays, Granville-Barker directed and acted in many, if not most, of them. If George Devine had a spiritual father it was, unquestionably, Granville-Barker, whose determination to make the theatre not a respectable art but an art which was respected, was precisely echoed in the evangelical purpose which drove George Devine.

George Devine and Tony Richardson met when Richardson was directing at the BBC, an organisation for which, characteristically, he had no respect (‘an out-front-and-proud-of-it bastion of mediocrity’). Devine was an actor/director who had run the Old Vic School with Michel Saint-Denis and Glen Byam Shaw. They trained actors on French and Russian models, serious above all about taking the theatre seriously. For a while it looked as though they would be chosen to run the National Theatre when the time came. The capricious Tyrone Guthrie fired them: Glen Byam Shaw went to Stratford and George Devine returned to acting.

When they talked about forming a theatre company neither the young Tony Richardson nor the much older Devine knew what they wanted: ‘a new theatre – he didn’t know what. I wanted a new theatre too, and I didn’t know how,’ Richardson writes. But if the ambitious young Oxford graduate didn’t know how to go about it, then the older actor did, and together, for a few years, they made a happy marriage – the young opportunist with the (not-so-old) visionary, the impatient entrepreneur with the fastidious craftsman. George Devine came to be known by succeeding generations as a ‘secular saint’, not a bad description for a man who said that ‘the theatre is really a religion or a way of life,’ even if, as Richardson says, ‘he always had the cement and truck dust on his hands – that’s why the hod-carriers would follow him to the top of the scaffolding.’

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