Clive Paton hasn't had a play put on in this country for 18 years. But in Russia he's big news. In Russia, he has three productions playing simultaneously - two at the Saratov Drama Theatre and one at the Moscow Art Theatre - all to packed houses. The critics call his work 'wonderful', 'Chekhovian' and 'impossibly open'; the actors claim they've never signed so many autographs and the indiscreet say Paton may have saved the Saratov Theatre from bankruptcy.
Eighteen years ago, while at art school in High Wycombe, Paton wrote a play called Dodo. Oddly enough, it was about the dodo. 'It's a very significant little play,' says Paton. 'There are only two dodos left on earth and their big question is 'Shall we have an egg or not?' It's about the end of the British empire - the dodos, sitting on their verandah, are left high and dry by events. The audience should see people, though the actors are obviously playing birds.'
Dodo was performed at the International Arts Centre in Elephant and Castle in 1975 and, according to Paton, Kenneth Tynan came to see it and was so impressed he requested a script. Had Tynan lived, Paton's career might have been different; as it was, the Dodo died. 'People mistook it for being about fluffy little animals,' says the playwright, 'and didn't come.'
When he realised he wasn't going to be the next Beatrix, let alone Dennis, Potter, Paton taught English as a foreign language and travelled. He continued to write - completing Scapegoat, which is about the invasion of the Spanish parliament and St Anne, on the relationship between an actress and her husband. Then, three years ago in Paris, he mounted a public reading of Dodo. 'And one of those moments that you dream about happened,' he says. 'A Russian emigree came up to me and said: 'I have some contacts in Russia. I will send them your play. I think that people in my country need to know the story of the Dodo.' ' She sent it, they (Alexander Dzekun of the Saratov Theatre and Nicolai Skovich of the Moscow Art) liked it and before Paton could say feathered friends, it was being translated and prepared for performance.
Paton thinks his Dodo took off in Russia because the people there identify with his protagonists. 'They see themselves as dodos,' he says. 'They've been through one change of environment and seen a whole system collapse overnight. Scapegoat, which Saratov is also performing, is a similar case: it's about the overthrow of democracy, written 10 years before Ceausescu. They say to me 'My God, how did you prophesy this?' It blows their minds. I write prophetic works.'
Paton may be short on humility, but his experience doesn't obey any of the rules that normally apply to the crowning of a playwright. He's paid in roubles, so he hasn't made any money. And while he's treated like a superstar, he's held at arm's length from his plays. He's never attended a rehearsal and doesn't understand the translations. The first performance was 'a shock. Even though it was in a foreign language I could tell it was a diametrically opposed production to my own. The dodos are not very attractive characters, but the Russians aren't saying 'horrible old dodos', they're saying 'poor dodos'. Also he has them flying like Peter Pan . . . Still, I'm not complaining.'
The play, for one thing, may travel still further; Saratov Drama Theatre intends to show their poor dodos to St Petersburg and the Ukraine. Paton's blood is up. 'I want them to be seen in France,' he says, 'and I want them to be seen in Germany and I want them to be seen in Australia. A Czech translation is being prepared so we should go there. And I think we've got a contact in Holland. And then, maybe, just maybe, they might be ready for it at home.'
Next week: the woman who photographs roof bosses