'Enron,' 'Jerusalem' fuel hot streak

The 53-year-old Royal Court Theater is on a hot streak.

Last week, Britain’s leading venue for new writing won four of the eight Evening Standard Theater Awards. Two of its SRO productions — Lucy Prebble’s headline-grabbing “Enron” and Jez Butterworth’s epic “Jerusalem” — will transfer to the West End in January within 12 days of each other. “Enron” will then move to Broadway in May while producer Sonia Friedman has confirmed Gotham plans for “Jerusalem” in 2011.

Meantime, the Court is previewing “The Priory,” a smartly cast new comedy by Michael Wynne in its downstairs venue. Upstairs, Mike Bartlett’s “Cock” (which sold out prior to opening) has won rhapsodic reviews that might have led to an extension if it weren’t for cast member Ben Whishaw starting rehearsals for the Off Broadway production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “The Pride,” another much-lauded play that originated at the Court. Gearing up for a prominent Off Broadway berth in spring is Court discovery “That Face.”

Dominic Cooke, three years into his tenure as Royal Court a.d., is keen to point out that what audiences and awards judges see is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Beneath the surface we have a huge range of initiatives to discover and support writers locally, nationally and internationally,” he says. “We have some very strong work coming next year from Russia.”

Every two years, the Court presents its closely watched Young Writers Festival. Those plays represent the strongest work emerging from development programs such as one that fostered Alia Bano, winner of the Standard’s most promising playwright award for “Shades.”“Alia came up through a three-year program that made relationships with and inroads into Muslim communities,” Cooke says. “It was designed to create writers’ groups and to encourage people to write plays who might never have thought of doing so. Although we receive 3,000 unsolicited scripts a year, we weren’t getting plays from Muslim writers.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Cooke points to Butterworth, who represents the theater’s long-range commitment. With just one exception, all of Butterworth’s plays since his debut, “Mojo,” premiered at the Court.

In the 1970s and ’80s, there was a fairly strict sense of what constituted a Royal Court play. With exceptions like Caryl Churchill, that tended to mean left-wing social realism. Not anymore.

“I’ve been really keen to encourage work to be as eclectic as possible and not to write to a house style,” Cooke says. “We don’t believe in teaching an orthodoxy about playwriting. It’s much more about a dialogue to give writers the confidence to develop their own voices.”U.S. playwrights often observe that new plays get stuck in ceaseless workshop development. But the Court is notable for putting its money where its mouth is. It produced over 16 new plays last year, plus “Rough Cuts,” a developmental showcase of new work.

All that is achieved on an extraordinarily tight budget. With new writing as its standard, the Court cannot bank on the lure of a known title. And with less than 480 seats to sell on any night, a £25 ($42) top and all tickets on Mondays just $17, there’s a hard ceiling to earned income.

And although the Court receives $3.7 million in government subsidy, Cooke regards this as an anomaly.

“We have a national role, but due to historical accident surrounding the reforming of England’s arts funding bodies, we’re not funded as a national company,” he notes. “We have one eighth of their subsidy, but we produce almost the same volume of work as the National Theater.”

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