Interview: Vicky Featherstone

Posted: Mon Sep 17 2012

The Royal Court's incoming artistic director talks about Scotland, journalism and the future

'The big news in terms of the Royal Court,' says Vicky Featherstone, drily, 'is that I'm still going to commission plays and playwrights.'

In a hilariously pricy socialist-chic coffee shop in Clerkenwell, Featherstone - one of our most inspiring artistic directors - is holding forth on her past, present and future.

The past is her role as founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, since its 2006 launch unquestionably Britain's most successful new theatre company.

The present is 'Enquirer', one of the last projects she'll helm for the NTS. A verbatim drama about the state of British newspaper journalism, it was created in response to last year's phone-hacking scandal, and the 80-minute piece is culled from interviews with 43 journalists. Co-commissioned with the London Review of Books, it premiered in Glasgow in April and will be staged next month in updated, recast form under the auspices of the Barbican in a Clerkenwell warehouse. It's an elegiac look at 'the real regret of an industry that had been abused because of economics', she says, and a call for 'a detailed discussion about why we need editing, why we need curating, why we need people to help us understand the world around us'.

And the future lies with the world's foremost English-language new writing theatre: next April she will begin her tenure as artistic director of the Royal Court, sharing the role with current boss Dominic Cooke before taking sole charge next autumn.

'I really feel like I'm leaving the NTS before I'm ready,' she sighs. 'It's unfinished business. I literally walked in on the first day with a mobile phone and no furniture and had to start from nothing, and that journey isn't over - I wasn't sitting there twiddling my thumbs. But the Royal Court job is the job I've wanted to do ever since I started working in theatre.'

Featherstone is amusing, enthused and informed, and much has been made of her being the first female director of the Court, which exasperates her: 'I'm shocked that we still live in a time where that's a surprise. But I am the first female artistic director of the Royal Court and there should have been others before me.'

But while the position is one of the most influential in British theatre, it's impossible to understate her achievements in Scotland, where she started a national theatre from scratch, guiding it to blockbuster success almost immediately with the Iraq War drama 'Black Watch'.

The more remarkable aspect of the NTS is that it has no fixed building, staging theatre of all conceivable forms for every sort of audience in every sort of venue, from Shetland to Glasgow. With typical subversive humour, Featherstone summed up the situation at a conference in an Edinburgh church this summer. 'I said the National Theatre of Scotland doesn't exist, because we're just a group of people in a room with some ideas. And then I said that God doesn't exist. It felt great saying that in a church, and nothing happened… so I'm right!' she cackles.

The Royal Court, of course, comes with a rarefied Sloane Square address, a lot of history and a core audience which Cooke has generally been happy to play to, famously declaring at the start of his tenure that he would stage works that 'explore what it means to be middle class'. That attitude doesn't seem entirely in keeping with NTS's rigorous egalitarianism. Featherstone won't be drawn on programming, but more of the same is unlikely. 'I've always been interested in experimenting with the form of theatre and how theatre morphs into its next new form.

'The reason why the Court is different,' she says, 'is that it's a theatre of ideas that happens to have an amazing building,' she says, 'and its successes have never been about that building. They're about the freedom of the writer to be able to write.

'I think what Dominic has done is incredibly clever, acknowledging the middle-class audience and saying we're going to make people think hard about themselves. But the theatre that I want to make will communicate with as many different kinds of people as possible. You have to be confident in programming different kinds of work to appeal to different people. A loyal audience is vital, but there's a danger in a core audience who believe that they have the right to like every single thing that you do.'