When George Devine founded the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, he demanded “hard-hitting, uncompromising” plays about “the problems and possibilities of our time.” He would stage new plays as if they were classics, and classics like new plays; welcome international work; and make theatre “part of the intellectual life of the country.”
Ten years later, Devine died feeling he’d failed at his ultimate goal. That’s debatable; the National Theatre and RSC were founded in response to Devine’s project. Now two new memoirs by important Royal Court figures offer a chance to consider how Devine’s values live on, and where they might be regained.
Dominic Dromgoole once called English playwright David Storey “the true inheritor of Chekhov’s gift.” Indeed, like Chekhov, Storey wrote four masterpieces for the theatre (In Celebration, The Contractor, Home, The Changing Room), and they are obsessed with work, grief, identity, responsibility, and class betrayal.
They’re political plays, but not in the way we’ve come to define them. There’s no argument, no debate, no one with their hand on their heart, no defined enemy. They follow ordinary people enduring their days; the politics are in how they relate to each other, the words they choose, what they do for a living, what’s in their pockets, the radical choice to tell these stories at all. Workmen build a marquee for a party, then tear it down. Rugby footballers dress for the game, return, clean up, and go home. Middle-aged men and women lie, joke, and flirt the time away in what is slowly revealed to be a mental hospital. Nothing much happens, and there are jokes, but the dark is always close: isolation, poverty, mental illness, death. The characters duck it by finishing their jobs, playing society’s roles. But they can never outrun it.
The language is spare, rhythmic, and poetic, the metaphors Pinteresque in their oblique, controlled clarity. Storey’s prose is equally vivid. A Booker-winning novelist, he was also a screenwriter and painter, as well as a bus conductor, laborer, postman, schoolteacher, and professional rugby player. He managed all this in the face of an unsmiling ghost: his brother Neville, who died, aged 6, just half a year before Storey’s birth.
Storey’s mother was suicidal during pregnancy; he was born with death in his blood. His newly published memoir A Stinging Delight (Faber, Aug. 2021), reads as a long appeal for Neville’s understanding: “I ‘became’ death at the moment I entered life, one registering as the other,” Storey writes. “I came into being the moment your death took place. Looking out from, not into, the grave, as the starting point of my existence gave me, I conjectured, a unique advantage: to see the world as it really was.”
Storey saw his future at grammar school, when, during a dull recitation of a dull poem, his classmates aged before his eyes, transforming into teachers, clerks, and salesmen, another generation who looked, thought, and spoke the same way. But he never changed. He would paint and write. It was the only use for Neville’s “gift,” an escape from the “terror” of daily life.
It was everywhere. Storey’s coal miner father, Frank, once snapped his ankle in the pit, then walked on it for days before being forced to go to hospital. Returning, he found his job taken by a man who had reported him dead. The foreman settled the matter by ordering them to duke it out. Frank wanted a better future for his son, but Storey’s pursuit of art in a punishing world—Frank exhorted him to “get out there”—made him feel a coward. And Frank hated cowards. When Storey told his father he wanted to forgo university for art school, Frank shouted, “Do you think I’ve been working all these years for you to end up in a garret?”
This only deepened Storey’s resolve that his work would have “no purpose…the quintessence of grace.” Chekhov would recognize this as art’s highest ambition. It’s also a good description of A Stinging Delight. But like Chekhov’s people, Storey couldn’t escape his class—“where the wallet and brain took over…what put you where you were.” Idleness was immoral, and so was art.
His parents never gave in. A sympathetic aunt posed as his mother for his application to the Slade School of Fine Art, and he funded his education with rugby league, which he hated. Years later, his father vomited at the homosexual subtext in his novel Radcliffe. His mother, Lily, proudly displayed her son’s books, yet never looked at them.
Wrestling with a ghost defined his life. Each day, Storey writes, he woke feeling “‘someone’ had died; I was about to be taken into the street and shot; I was falling off a cliff—and all I could do, if silently, was scream.” This was the case throughout his legendary collaboration with Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court, beginning in 1968. Storey was an accidental playwright; though bored by Hamlet as a boy, he found the distillation he craved was only possible in the theatre. It gave his pictures life. And he often wrote maniacally, up to 10,000 words a day. Or he sometimes lay paralyzed, dissociated, weeping, a stranger to his devoted wife and children.
Yet he worked with the best. Of his colleagues—he memorably sketches Anderson, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and David Mercer—only Jocelyn Herbert dared ask, “Why are you so sad, David? Why are you so sad?”
He couldn’t answer. Art didn’t save Storey; the last third of his life was marked by a crack-up so severe as to make work almost impossible. But perhaps there was something to Neville’s “gift”: Storey’s psychiatrist watched, amazed, as Storey was the only person in the mental hospital who was able to calm a psychotic.
This is a lacerating book. Storey wrote it in the 1980s and 1990s, submitted it for publication, then immediately withdrew it. He asked his children to hold it until after his death. It pulls no punches, whether on his cold mother; on his jealous, paranoid surviving older brother; on why his work fell from favor; but most of all on himself. He avoids score-settling: He notes that his mother was grief-stricken, exhausted by life; his brother had his own ghost to deal with; and perhaps, Storey says, his work wasn’t much good at all. As with Chekhov, Storey’s cold eye fights his heart to a draw, but he stops short of forgiveness. He exorcises ghosts by staring them in the face.
In a loving afterword, Storey’s daughter Kate writes that her father purposely excluded her mother from the latter parts of the book. David and Barbara Storey were married until her death in 2015, and she cared for him as dementia and Parkinson’s disease set in. Given the darkness of the final chapters, this omission is surely an act of respect.
A Stinging Delight has significant historical value as a record of Northern youth during the early/mid-20th century, and of the period when the Royal Court brought new plays to the forefront. Some of its ideas—about how plays are designed and directed, what a play is—feel like going back to the future. It warns that during an artist’s lifetime, art is never bigger than the wound it grows from. And finally, it is proof that Storey survived. Which is all he wished.
It isn’t a monument but a signpost for beautiful plays that deserve reassessment and resurrection.
David Lan specializes in reassessment and resurrection. He’s a magician; the magic spell sim-salabim appears occasionally throughout As If By Chance (Faber, April 2020), as it flashes between memoir, manifesto, and mediation on the theatre’s strange power. As artistic director of the Young Vic (2000-18), Lan transformed it from a decrepit building in the Waterloo Road to a worldwide center for director-driven theatre.
Like all great tricks, it had layers. Lan welcomed some of the world’s best directors (Peter Brook, Patrice Chéreau, Luc Bondy, Simon Stone) while preserving British reverence for playwrights. He produced Beckett and Brecht, Ivo van Hove’s Olivier- and Tony-winning production of A View From the Bridge, surprising adaptations, devised work, deep dives, revelatory revivals, the occasional new play, musical, or opera—the list defies summary. Lan succeeded where so many artistic directors fail; he illuminated dark corners and changed audiences’ relationship with classics. He ran “a neighbourhood theatre plugged into the world.”
When Mark Dornford-May staged Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Young Vic with Black singers and musicians from South African townships, it was a bold statement that Mozart is for everybody; according to conductor Sir Simon Rattle, the late composer “would have been surprised, then delighted.” The African rhythms and phrasing unlocked the original’s humor and joy. Lan recalls the production as a deliberate choice to raise the game of his fellow professionals, a crucible for making theatre in and for the most diverse city on earth.
Lan, himself a white South African, directed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone with almost nothing onstage. (August Wilson would never have allowed it, of course, but his estate has an eye for outsiders.) Freed from naturalism, the characters acquired new mythic weight, and Wilson’s jazz heartbeat was louder than ever.
Before Lan oversaw the Young Vic’s reconstruction from 2004 to 2006, it was a flimsy shack behind a disused butcher shop. He set the theatre firmly in its neighborhood, making tickets cheap or free for local people, and putting them onstage when possible. The theatre reopened with John Fulljames’ production of Tobias and the Angel, an opera with libretto by Lan and music by Jonathan Dove, featuring more than 100 South London residents of all ages.
Lan keeps moving. From 1995 to ’97 he was the Royal Court’s resident dramatist—really a sort of roving associate director. He also produced a television documentary on the battle to restore the building. Before that he wrote A Mouthful of Birds, a haunting riff on The Bacchae, with his friend Caryl Churchill; Peter Brook engaged him to write a film; and he got a Ph.D. in social anthropology through his study of spirit mediums and guerrilla war in Zimbabwe.
As If By Chance puts us inside a restlessly curious mind. It has too many worlds, questions, and perspectives to be contained by chronology, so we zig-zag through Lan’s life. First his childhood in apartheid Cape Town: Bookish, political, rebellious, Jewish, unapologetically gay, he was the son of a charming philanderer and his long-suffering wife. His parents love him, but their relationship cements his natural dislocation: “Overhearing grown-ups quarreling in the next room is how theatre begins.”
Then to the Young Vic in 2011; London in 1969, where he meets his partner, the playwright Nicholas Wright; the Namibian bush in the 1980s; back to Cape Town; arguing Chekhov with the drunken Russian culture secretary, and so on. This is a kaleidoscope worked by a good director, a story told in juxtapositions and symmetries. Colors brighten as others recede. The image is dazzling while it lasts, then is replaced. Nothing overstays its welcome.
Lan doesn’t say why he studied anthropology, but I’d guess it springs from an understanding the truth is elusive, and most often glimpsed in shadow: in places you’ve never looked before, or better still, the spaces between them. Such is this book; it’s also what makes a great theatre artist.
We don’t see much of Lan’s soul. We can’t pin his taste, and his relationship with Wright remains mostly in the background. Everything relates to “the growth of an aesthetic, or perhaps better, an approach to aesthetics.” He credits Andrei Serban, who directed two of his plays, with leading him toward maturity. Under Serban’s influence, Lan’s goal became not just to work across the theatre or lead a rich parallel life, but to transcend himself and his training.
To Lan the playwright and social scientist, “Thinking was everything. You analyse, you discuss, you try to get to the bottom of things, you believe there is a bottom to things.” He was shocked when, while working with Serban, the director didn’t want to read his other plays, and seemed utterly uninterested in his background or politics. Lan worried whether Serban had read the script at all. He had—just not much. But in rehearsal,
…day by day scene by scene, the actors became enchanted by [Serban’s] openness to suggestion, his spontaneity, his sense of fun, the freedom he offered. He was creating with them, for them, on their bodies, as the choreographers say. It was only in the room that he did his thinking.
We are the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. Precision is our only value: of feeling, of understanding, of expression, here, now, in this air that we all breathe together on this instant of this day, on this spit of the earth, in this bare room with everything to lose, everything to win.
Perhaps that’s what George Devine meant when he called for “hard-hitting” plays—not journalism, spectacle, or exploitation, but the shock of human risk. The difficulty of recognition and connection, of listening, of life as it’s lived. Or the ghost of a better world, where we’re closer together.
The search takes many lifetimes of thought. Devine didn’t survive it; Storey barely did. Lan never claims to work at that level, but it’s clear he can. He’s glimpsed the secret that drives the best of us: the spell to set others free.
Justin Sherin (he/him) is a playwright whose work has been developed or produced at the Royal Court Theatre, the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, 59E59, Yale Cabaret, and elsewhere. He trained at Fordham University and Yale School of Drama.
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