The Royal Court’s Vicky Featherstone: ‘Britain thinks it isn’t antisemitic because it defeated Hitler’

Show caption Vicky Featherstone: ‘It’s important we acknowledge our mistakes and understand where they came from’ Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian Stage The Royal Court’s Vicky Featherstone: ‘Britain thinks it isn’t antisemitic because it defeated Hitler’ A group of queer, black friends, the Jewish experience, how a British Iraqi saw the Gulf War … as she unveils her radical programme, the artistic director talks about learning from the row which saw the theatre accused of antisemitism Arifa Akbar @Arifa_Akbar Mon 13 Jun 2022 12.54 BST Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share via Email

About three years ago, Vicky Featherstone’s old university friend, the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman, suggested staging a play about antisemitism on the left as charges continued to linger around the Labour party. Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court in London, had already had a similar conversation with a board member. She began developing the shape of the play.

But earlier this year, the theatre found itself on the back foot and issued an apology over Al Smith’s drama Rare Earth Mettle, whose rich, avaricious character was given a Jewish name in a glaring instance of unconscious bias. Featherstone fast-tracked Oberman’s idea into action: “It had to come to the fore more quickly because it was a really important thing to think about and acknowledge.”

The result is Jews. In Their Own Words, a verbatim play by the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, the first offering in the Royal Court’s forthcoming season. Co-directed by Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, it will include songs, projections and the words of some of Britain’s most prominent Jewish thinkers including Luciana Berger, Simon Schama, Margaret Hodge and Howard Jacobson. “We agreed that the verbatim form was the right one and that it would be, as Jonathan has said, Jews speaking in their own words – people being able to talk about their own experiences, a lot of which they’ve felt they have been silenced on, or told they were making up. It will be hard-hitting and satirical – a serious piece of event-theatre.”

The play aims to reach a “complex, detailed understanding of where antisemitism sits in our culture, in a way that we choose not to see if we’re not Jewish,” says Featherstone in her corner office at the Royal Court. Her desk overlooks the flinty gloss of Sloane Square but she is disarmingly personable. We meet after the Queen’s platinum jubilee and she tells me, with more than a hint of mischief, that she was away for the long weekend in the “Republic of France – that’s all I’ll say!”

‘There are genuine, very public and bad mistakes you make’ … Arthur Darvill, right, as Henry Finn – originally named Hershel Fink – in Rare Earth Mettle. Photograph: Helen Murray

Featherstone seems entirely untouched by grandness. She came to the Royal Court in 2013, from the theatre company Paines Plough and the National Theatre of Scotland, to become this theatre’s first female artistic director. “I’ve been programming work since I started at Paines Plough at the age of 28 in 1997, but I think this year has been the hardest one I’ve ever had,” she says. Part of the challenge was the backlog of work stacked up, waiting to have life breathed into it on stage. But it’s more than that. “The whole world is in flux and it’s really important that the work we do acknowledges that. The artists we are working with want to question the structures. People are talking about wanting a contract in which they are co-creators of a project, or a different pay structure, or challenging the hierarchy of how projects are made. Every single thing feels like it’s a new imagining of how you do something.”

Is it also a slower process because she is mindful of mistakes such as in the case of Rare Earth Mettle? “I think there are genuine, very public and bad mistakes that you make like the naming of the character in Rare Earth Mettle. I think it’s important we acknowledge those and understand where they came from, what that means, and the work we need to do to ensure we have learned from it, so it doesn’t happen again. That’s one kind of mistake. But the way I’m talking about making work is about actually stepping into an unknown that may bring some form of – as Samuel Beckett says – failing better.”

The whole world is in flux, and I think it’s really important that the work we do acknowledges that

Her programme reflects redrawn boundaries with creatives. Several of the writers are debuting their first play on the theatre’s two stages. Some have come out of the Royal Court’s own workshops. None of them have had a play on at this theatre before – apart from Martin Crimp who will perform his monologue Not One of These People, which features 299 voices.

“The best plays are the playwright’s explorations,” says Featherstone. “They’re not fixed or saying, ‘This is my thesis on the world and I’m going to dramatise it.’ Every work this season is doing that – it’s a major exploration of something.”

Among the debut writers is Jasmine Naziha Jones, who was part of the Introduction to Playwriting group at the Court and whose first ever play, Baghdaddy (directed by Milli Bhatia), will open in the auditorium downstairs. “It’s really rare that a play written in that group gets staged,” says Featherstone. As a British Iraqi, it is Jones’s story of watching her father watch the Gulf war in 1990-91 when she was a child. “It’s joyful and funny and she really plays with what theatre is.”

Rabiah Hussain’s drama Word-Play, about language and the British Muslim experience, is premiering alongside Ava Wong Davies’s Graceland, Travis Alabanza’s Sound of the Underground and the actor Danny Lee Wynter’s first play, Black Superhero, which centres on a group of friends who are queer and black.

‘The best plays are explorations’ … Adelayo Adedayo and Tamara Lawrance in Is God Is, by Aleshea Harris, in 2021. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Since lockdown lifted, the Royal Court has staged some unflinching work, such as Aleshea Harris’s satirical Is God Is, which showed graphic violence and more recently, Sami Ibrahim’s Two Palestinians Go Dogging, an incendiary piece on the Middle East conflict. Were these deliberate provocations?

No, says Featherstone, but all the same: “I think people need to know there’s somewhere they can put work on that might not get on anywhere else. The Royal Court has an amazing history of that and they’re not scared of it.” Is she ever scared herself? “Definitely. But when I become fearful or I start to retreat, I know I’m not doing my job properly.” In staging work with such hard edges, she is trying to “talk about things we didn’t know how to talk about”.

During her tenure, she has launched manifestos on climate change, #MeToo and structural racism. For the last of these, the Royal Court teamed up with Sour Lemons to look within its own organisation and dismantle race inequality. The theatre has had antisemitism training too. “It makes us recognise the things we have accepted that are antisemitic and the history of that, embedded in our literature and culture. There is definitely a problem in this country – we think we defeated Hitler therefore we are not antisemitic, rather than remembering it’s an ancient prejudice.”

Featherstone feels that these are extraordinarily testing and precarious times for the arts. “We’re in a very broken moment in British politics,” she says. “People who believe in the arts and their importance really have to stand up for that now – for education in the arts, for the BBC and Arts Council England, for the freedom of journalism, for the non-censorship of work we put on. There have been times, such as when I was at the National Theatre of Scotland, when there wasn’t any more money for the arts but we knew that, for Nicola Sturgeon’s government, the success of the arts in Scotland was important. But here, now? I don’t think it is.”

‘We have to stand up for the arts right now’ … Two Palestinians Go Dogging, written by Sami Ibrahim. Photograph: Ali Wright

What about inequalities inside her own industry? “I think we’re talking generations [for real change to take place] whether it’s gender inequality or race inequality or class.” Class, in fact, is the most entrenched, intractable and unaddressed problem, she thinks. “If there isn’t a drama teacher in your school who takes you to see things, theatre will be a complete stranger to you.”

She is aware of what her class privilege has afforded her. “How difficult was it for me to get this job? I don’t know, but it would’ve been much harder if I’d been a benefits-class woman. That person isn’t doing my job yet and we really need to acknowledge that. In the jobs that I’ve had, I don’t sit around looking at the board – who have often been men in suits – and think ‘I don’t have a right to be here.’ I think, ‘I fucking have a right to be here’ – but that’s because my privilege allows it.”

Even though Featherstone feels that right – to be sitting where she is, overseeing one of the most prestigious new writing venues in Britain – she has never seen it as her job. What is vital for her is envisaging one’s own departure. Although it isn’t imminent, she is mindful of hers. “I love this job so much but I think you can only ever be a guardian of a job like this. It’s never your job. I think where people start to go wrong is when they try and think of how to hold on.”

Rather like this current government? “Yes, 100%. I think it’s wrong for the organisation and wrong for yourself personally. It’s really important to be doing these kinds of jobs knowing you can’t do them forever, and that you mustn’t do them for ever … Somebody else will have this job one day and I need to do the best I can to make it the most robust job it can be.”

Tickets for the new Royal Court season go on sale on 21 June.