'Living Newspaper' at the Royal Court Theater Stirs Up Stories of Our Time

LONDON — Have you had enough of wading through newsprint or scrolling online? The Royal Court Theater has a bracing online alternative t...


LONDON — Have you had enough of wading through newsprint or scrolling online? The Royal Court Theater has a bracing online alternative that refracts current events through a vibrant and eclectic array of plays that give many of today’s hot-button topics a piquant spin.

The self-evident inspiration for “Living Newspaper” is the project of the same name from Depression-era America, a federally funded response to the social concerns of the day that had its origins in the Russian Revolution and saw art as an agency for change.

That immediacy tallies with the history of engagement at the Court, a theater that prides itself on taking the temperature of the times. Not for nothing is one of the makeshift spaces adapted for this collection of plays referred to as the Weather Room. (The idea was to reconfigure the Court so that its spaces, onstage or off, approximated the sections of a newspaper.)

And what, you might ask, is the forecast? “Unpredictability, volatility and destruction,” announces the actress Kayla Meikle in a solo play by Nina Segal, her reply hinting at a sense of uncertainty, or worse, common to much of the writing here. Its tone cheerful, then chilling, Segal’s play runs less than six minutes and forms part of Edition 5 of an ambitious seven-part venture. The Court is due to reopen to the public in June.

The playhouse in Sloane Square, long devoted to new writing, has put the pandemic to culturally productive use. At a time when theater professionals have been reeling from an absence of work, the Living Newspaper has employed over 300 freelancers, two-thirds of them writers and actors. The first four “editions” are no longer available, but Editions 5 and 6 are, with the final one to be available beginning Monday for two weeks. That one will be devoted to writers ages 14 to 21.

How can a building work as a newspaper? Surprisingly easily. We experience the stories in different physical places much as we might flick through the news pages. Each “edition” comes with an obituary and advice “pages,” for instance, into which are slotted plays to match. The front page tends to be reserved for a larger-scale piece with music to get the proceedings off to a rousing start.

The result has allowed as varied a range of expression as you could imagine, sometimes cheeky and satirical, just as often pointed and polemical. (The Living Newspaper of legend knew a thing or two about agitprop.) The writers include regulars like E.V. Crowe, whose teasing “Shoe Lady” was at the Court last spring just as London theaters were shut down, and Tim Crouch, a maverick actor-writer whose solo play “Horoscopes” shows him at his most wicked as he eviscerates the 12 signs of the zodiac.

Themes of empowerment and self-identity recur, just as various forms of the word “apocalypse” betray a prevailing unease. Normalcy exists only to be upended, not least in Crowe’s “The Tree, the Leg and the Axe,” in which two women (Letty Thomas and Alana Jackson, both terrific) sit cozily in the theater bookstore and exult in being “safe ones” far removed from the virus — no masks for them! — only to reveal a landscape marked by savagery.

Several plays embrace the environment of the Court. Maud Dromgoole’s witty “Museum of Agony,” a solo piece delivered with sustained brio by Jackson, folds its simmering anger into a discussion about what to order from the theater bar. Episode 6 features an arresting turn from the performance artist Nando Messias, whose “Mi Casa Es Su Casa,” by Hester Chillingworth, concludes with the elegantly clad Messias rising from the outdoor steps of the Court and entering the playhouse, an invitation for us to follow scrawled on the performer’s back.

Any of these themes could fuel an entire season in nonpandemic times, especially at the Court, known for keeping an eye on the mood of the moment. It has a history of plays embracing political tensions (one was Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman,” set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland) and of casting a wide geographic net. The theater also introduced the notion of the “angry young man” in 1956 with John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” and it courses with palpable emotion here.

Tensions in the Middle East fuel several of the plays, like Dalia Taha’s “A Warning,” about planting the seed for revolution in Ramallah in the West Bank. The renewed violence in Northern Ireland propels the bitterly funny “Flicking the Shamrock” by Stacey Gregg. At four minutes, it is beautifully performed by Amanda Coogan and Rachael Merry as women whose preferred forms of sign language (BSL versus ISL) indicate a power-sharing that may not be going according to plan.

The Living Newspaper offers a theatrical potpourri comparable to the Lockdown Plays, which were a highlight of pandemic-era writing and folded in many a recognized name from the Court. As with any newspaper, you can dip in and out, alighting on whichever play catches the eye. I would happily return to Amy Bethan Evans’s cheekily titled “Neurodiverge-Aunt,” in which the wonderful Cian Binchy, who is autistic, ponders the limits of compassion allowed by an advice columnist: “I can’t be your friend because that’s unprofessional.”

I laughed out loud at Leo Butler’s “In Memoriam (With Helen Peacock),” in which the actress Nathalie Armin looks back dispassionately at a forbidding list of recent deaths that includes “nuance” and “debate,” which has made it all the way from ancient Greece only to surrender to modern-day trolling.

And cheers for Rory Mullarkey’s “This Play,” which describes theater of all styles and structures, including those that have been impossible during the pandemic. At one point, the actress Millicent Wong demands, “Just give me plays again now,” her voice rising. Any devotee of the Court, and its downstairs bar, would surely drink to that.

The Living Newspaper continues online through May 9.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'Living Newspaper' at the Royal Court Theater Stirs Up Stories of Our Time
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