Courting Contention

Controversy onstage, personnel changes offstage, enticing shows waiting in the wings: It’s business as usual at the Royal Court Theater, which continues to keep theater pages busy with the quantity of work – last year, the Court produced more shows than the Royal National Theater – and, in the case of “Blasted,” at least, the quality.

What was “Blasted,” you ask? Oh, just the usual attention-grabber in which two men and a woman engage in male and female rape; onstage defecation and urination; verbal humiliation and abuse; the biting out of one man’s eyes by another; and nibbling on a dead baby.

“Nauseating,” cried the Daily Telegraph; “Very silly,” chimed the Sunday Times – though to this observer, 23-year-old Sarah Kane’s Theater Upstairs play was more boring than anything else: a thesis about human bestiality that only illustrated its author’s inability to write a play to contain it.

Still, the Royal Court has always thrived on controversy, going back to the late John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” in 1956, so it’s perhaps no surprise that “Blasted” sold out its limited run. While several transfers – one to the Battersea Arts Center, the other to the Ambassadors Theater on the West End – were entertained and then dropped, artistic director Stephen Daldry used a recent whirlwind trip to New York to talk it up to various theaters, with Off Broadway’s Soho Rep a likely recipient of the play next fall.

The New York Shakespeare Festival, meanwhile, is sending Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” to the Royal Court in April, though not in the Shepard-directed production that won mixed reviews late last year. Instead, Court associate artistic director James Macdonald will stage the British premiere, with a cast headed by American actress Elizabeth McGovern alongside Irishmen Ciaran Hinds and Sean McGinley.

As for the Irish, any London visit by Donal McCann is an event, so one looks forward eagerly to McCann’s return to the Court in April in the Theater Upstairs, where he will head the cast of Sebastian Barry’s “The Steward of Christendom.”

Offstage, the Court this spring loses two valuable employees – finance administrator Mark Rubinstein, who leaves to become managing director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and general manager Graham Cowley, who in April joins Don Taffner’s Theater of Comedy as creative producer, becoming part of a triumvirate with artistic director Alan Strachan and general manager Nick Salmon.

Among Cowley’s other projects will be shifting plays to and from the United States. One of the first he is considering is “My Night With Reg,” the Kevin Elyot play that began at the Court before transferring to the West End, where it has so far recouped half its £140,000 ($220,000) capitalization at the Criterion Theater. Expect the play Off Broadway in the next year or so.

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