New order in Royal Court

Cooke unveils his first lineup as a.d.

LONDON — The Royal Court Theater is touting its first season under artistic director Dominic Cooke as a revitalization rather than a revolution.

As expected, Cooke, 40, continues the mission of world premieres from new and established dramatists at what is universally regarded as the U.K.’s premier home for new writing. That reputation was further cemented during the Court’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 2006, which positioned fresh playwriting talent alongside Caryl Churchill’s “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Cooke will present five plays by writers making their Court debuts — four of them with their first plays. The fifth is the U.K. preem of Bruce Norris’ “The Pain and the Itch,” which premiered last year at Steppenwolf before playing Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Cooke will direct the dark, dysfunctional family comedy in the 386-seat Theater Downstairs.

Debuting talents closer to home include Belfast-born novelist and journalist Lucy Caldwell, whose play “Leaves” (March 14-April 7 in the 70-seat Theater Upstairs) won the 2006 George Devine Award for new writing. A co-production with Druid Theater, it will be directed by Garry Hynes, whose production of Brian Friel’s “Translations” is running on Broadway.

Next up is “That Face,” the debut of 19-year-old Polly Stenham, described as “a hard-hitting, intense and visceral dissection of parent-child relationships.” “Alaska” by DC Moore is about race, sex and purity.

“A very fresh play about masculinity” is how Cooke describes Mike Bartlett’s “My Child,” to be directed by Cooke’s newly appointed associate Sacha Wares in the main auditorium, which will be reconfigured for the staging.

“It’s about an estranged couple and the inability of a father to cope with the differing demands of being a new-age, post-feminist man,” says Cooke.

In 2006, as associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Cooke repositioned Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” as a startlingly relevant play about fundamentalism — he’s among contenders to win the Olivier for director for it. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he’s particularly excited by big public plays that use metaphor. To that end, he’s commissioned new translations of two European classics first seen at the Royal Court in the ’60s.

Beginning in September, a repertory company will perform in Cooke’s new production of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” — first seen at the Court in Orson Welles’ production starring Laurence Olivier — and Ramin Gray’s production of Max Frisch’s “The Fire Raisers.”

Both plays have suffered from being labeled as Theater of the Absurd. Cooke argues that new translations by Martin Crimp and political satirist Alistair Beaton, respectively, blow away the cobwebs and point up how timely they are.

“I think ‘Rhinoceros’ is very sharp about people’s apathy and ‘Fire Raisers’ is very much about conformity,” says Cooke. “The latter is very interesting in terms of current politics: It’s about a middle-class, well-meaning family that invites people into their home who end up blowing them up. That obviously has provocative resonances.”

Appointed almost a year ago to shadow outgoing a.d. Ian Rickson after being one of the Court’s associate directors from 1998-2002, Cooke has assessed every aspect of its operation.

“When I applied for the post, I was staggered at the funding levels compared with the other major subsidized theaters,” he says. “Roughly speaking, the National gets £16 million ($31 million) per year from the Arts Council, the RSC £13.5 million ($26.5 million). We get £2 million ($3.9 million) and we do 18 new productions a year, which is more than the RSC, albeit on a smaller scale.”

The Court’s turnover is around $7.8 million, with $2 million in box office and $2 million in fund-raising from a department of just four.

“The total staff is around 50,” adds Cooke. “It’s a minor miracle. With budgets that tight, we cannot expand any area of staffing. But I am planning much further ahead than has previously been the case.

“The argument has always been to wait because you don’t know when the best plays are going to come in. But long-range programming means it’s far easier to raise money, arrange for productions to have life beyond the building, not to mention casting and dramaturgical work.”

Cooke’s final policy shift is the least expected. “What I really want to do is bring in more plays that make people laugh,” he offers. “Young writers tend not to do that, but the first plays I saw here were often very, very funny. Humor is a very useful tool.”

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