Royal playhouse marks its half-century looking back to Osborne's 'Anger'

LONDON — As the Royal Court prepares to mark its half-century next year, the playhouse that gave us John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” in 1956 is anticipating a lineup of work in the same tradition of adventurous, socially engaged drama with, occasionally, the power to scorch.

Will any of the new season’s productions be instant classics along the lines of the Osborne landmark? Who’s to tell, especially since some of the plays (a new David Hare script, for instance) aren’t even written yet. But the plan is for a furiously busy Court season, with more than 20 productions and 50 readings — one for every year in the Court’s history.

The coup for 2006 — a season whose £1 million ($1.75 million) budget is some 2½ times the theater’s annual standard — is the first contribution from Tom Stoppard, with his latest play, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which opens a six-week run in early June. Trevor Nunn and Bunny Christie are the director/designer team.

“My job is to find big defining plays, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t pester people like Tom, which I did gently but sustainedly,” says Court artistic director Ian Rickson. “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with speaking roles for up to 20 actors, is said to shift in time from 1968 to the present. Music from the period helps chart an intricate narrative that moves over the years between Czechoslovakia — the country of Stoppard’s birth — and England.

Not all Court newcomers are as established as Stoppard, but they form part of the theater’s typically varied, eclectic mix. Tanika Gupta, the 42-year-old Asian writer (her parents are from Calcutta), told Variety she could have only preemed her latest show, “Sugar Mummies,” at the Court.

“Mummies” is a nine-person play focusing on the sex industry in the Caribbean, and the women — a diverse quartet in Gupta’s play — who travel to Jamaica in search of carnal adventure and maybe even love.

. “With ‘Sugar Mummies,’ I was very much writing a play for the Court rather than a play you fancy writing and then tout around,” Gupta says.

Sexually explicit, per Gupta, and hopefully honest, the play, due to start a monthlong run next July, is intended for a public that doesn’t mind something different. “You don’t have to worry about the audience being prissy,” she says.

And how could they, given Court dramatists have written of the stoning of a baby (Edward Bond’s “Saved”), mutilation and torture (Sarah Kane’s “Blasted”) and, most recently, compulsive gay cruising on the Net (Tim Fountain’s “Sex Addict”). The Court can embrace calmer terrain, too — think of Court regular Conor McPherson, for starters — but even there the emphasis is on a distinctive voice. And a bit of daring.Occasionally, the title provides a clue. In April, Simon Stephens, a veteran of the Court’s tiny Theater Upstairs, makes his mainstage debut with a new play, “Motortown,” which originally went by the title, “Fuck Off.” Play, about a young British soldier returning home from Iraq to east London’s Essex, directly acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part.

“I’ve written a play, I think, that’s pretty angry: the least personal, most political play I’ve ever written,” says Stephens. “And I couldn’t have done it without the support of this theater.”

Not every Court play exists to vent its spleen, any more than Osborne’s kitchen-sink realism has been an unshakable Court template. (On the other hand, one can trace a direct connection between Osborne and such Court inheritors as Edward Bond, Howard Barker, and even Caryl Churchill, who in varying ways are themselves fueled by rage.)

What matters, says former Court a.d. Stephen Daldry, is that the playhouse allows “an extraordinary cacophony of different sights and sounds and voices.” Daldry is keeping his fall calendar clear to direct Hare’s new play and has shepherded three of Churchill’s more audacious works — “This Is a Chair,” “Far Away” and “A Number” — to Court preems.

In the absence of a new play from Churchill, at least for now, the writer described by Rickson as Britain’s “most adventurous” will be repped by a February revival of “Top Girls”; Rickson himself directs the six-week run of a seminal work from the Court’s most prolific dramatist. But the programming allows established writers to rub up against new ones, less-seasoned scribes to follow pros.

To that end, Gupta’s “Sugar Mummies” will fall between new plays from Stoppardand Terry Johnson (“Piano/Forte”), a Court regular. Johnson’s latest stars Kelly Reilly and American thesp Alicia Witt as sisters. Daringly for Johnson, it’s not about anyone famous.

“Our task,” says Rickson, who is entering his final year as Court a.d., “is to commemorate and celebrate while being true to ourselves.””Look Back in Anger” gets a special reading, starring David Tennant and Kelly Reilly, on May 8, while 2005 Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter will star later in the season in onetime Court writer Samuel Beckett’s solo play, “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

But the desire is for a year that also looks ahead. Or as Rickson puts it, “How do we keep the story moving forward?”

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