Josephine Balfour Oatts has a quick chat with Vicky Featherstone about new play, The Cane #metoo and positions of power and 2019’s very exciting programme.
It is the final day of rehearsals for The Cane, and Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone calls from the Royal Court in Sloane Square. Her voice rings with friendly enthusiasm, and we quickly clamber into our half-hour window. This time last year, Harvey Weinstein had finally been exposed as a sexual predator. Featherstone was swift in her response to the scandal, introducing No Grey Area (a performance built on a sharing of stories surrounding the abuses of power) four industry wide Town Hall sessions, and the Royal Court’s Code of Behaviour. “I think we are very much at the tip of the iceberg” she says, as she reflects on the rolling tide of the #MeToo movement. “It’s very hard for me to be optimistic from my position of power because there will always be people for whom nothing has changed.” For her, it is paramount that the walls of inequality – in all its forms – continue to be broken down.
Looking back over the theatre’s March – January Season, 2018 has seen some exciting developments, most notably a collaboration with BBC4 for Snatches. Marking 100 years of Suffrage, the project was built from a series of eight filmed monologues, written and performed by women. “I think it’s really interesting when the freedom that writers have in theatre is allowed to exist on [screen]”, she says. This merging of story-telling machines manages to be novel while lapsing into previous endeavours such as Off the Page (a series of microplays created with The Guardian at the beginning of Featherstone’s Artistic Directorship), as well as that of the 70’s television programme Play for Today. Each piece was filmed in one day, with just two hours of rehearsal. “As ever, it always [comes down to] time and money,” Featherstone sighs, “[and] I feel that the process got slightly compromised as a result.” Nevertheless, she is intensely proud of the final product and of the largely female production team.
The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs has just played host to debbie tucker green’s roaring success ear for eye, (our recent review of which you can read here) and is now making way for Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane. “It is a pressure cooker of a play,” Featherstone says excitedly, one that gives focus to a very recent history: the legality of corporal punishment. Due to conclude this season, the production takes its name from a favoured method of disciplining among schools, which was outlawed in state education in 1986, while remaining legal in independent schools. It is this sweeping of institutional violence under the national carpet that interested Ravenhill. “There are teachers retiring now that would have given the cane,” Featherstone adds.
As such, the narrative ties itself around Edward – a retiring teacher – his wife Maureen and their estranged daughter, who arrives on their doorstep in light of an unexpected siege on the family home. Set within the walls of this lower-middle class suburbia, Designer Chloe Lamford has constructed a beige living space as a symbol of how this societal group have held on to the backbone of Britain for so long. Hole by emerging playwright Ellie Kendrick has also just begun in the Jerwood Upstairs. According to Featherstone, this debut is entirely unique in its explosion of concept and music. “We’ve never had anything like it at the Royal Court ever before,” she continues. The two productions display a keen sense of power, both in its genesis and potential for abuse. Indeed, this thread can be identified throughout this past season, together with an awareness of the status-quo and how it can be disrupted on stage.
This theme continues with an equally innovative range of work to be performed next year. Most notably, a co-production with Clean Break, Inside Bitch, is set to challenge how “prison is used as great metaphor for drama.” In addition, White Pearl by 24-year-old playwright Anchuli Felicia King is looking to bring a global perspective of cross-cultural racism to London audiences, while 2019 will also mark the return of Jack Thorne with his latest play, the end of history. In terms of the Royal Court’s commitments to diversifying programming and representation, actions speak louder than words. “I feel very strongly that it is not about making statements or virtue signalling,” Featherstone says, her tone sphinx-like. “There is so much talk and language thrown around. It’s just about doing it”.
Her approach to the arts is a beacon of hope for many in the industry, what with the rise of the digital age and recent changes to the education sector meaning that creative subjects are being squeezed across the board. Time stretches and snaps, and all too quickly Featherstone is needed back in the rehearsal room. We say our goodbyes promptly, though the gravity of her composure lingers for a while longer. The anxieties that had suddenly surfaced on my end of the line in regard to the future of theatre have softened and become slack. For now, I am safe in the wisdom of her parting words – that it is the lack of answers around the arts, education and funding that will make theatre fragile. However, at over 2000 years old, it seems that the medium has not and will not be broken.
The Cane is playing at the Royal Court until 26 January 2019. For more information and tickets, visit the site.