Theatre: A song and dance for Europe

The Royal Court Theatre has just been to Sicily to pick up a well- deserved award for its international residencies and exchange programmes. But what company does the New Theatrical Realities prize keep? Is it all it's cracked up to be?
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Goethe once maintained that "in Sicily, you can find the answer to everything". He would have felt inclined to revise that view pretty thoroughly if he had spent last weekend at the Premio Europa per il Teatro - Europe Theatre Prize - a three- day event in Taormina that is a kind of Eurobabble Olympics.

The most lucrative award (60,000 euros) went this year to the German choreographer Pina Bausch, while England's Royal Court Theatre won the characteristically unreal-sounding "New Theatrical Realities" prize (20,000 euros), in recognition of its very real achievement in promoting the work of its latest wave of dramatists - the Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane and Conor McPherson generation - throughout Europe, and for its extensive international programme involving exchanges with other producing houses across the world.

One simple measure of the Court's cultural influence was highly audible. Thanks to the title of Ravenhill's biggest hit, the most unlikely people are now obliged to use the word "fucking" on a routine basis - not least, the elderly, besuited judging panel of the Premio Europa who were on stage at the final ceremony in a line-up that would make the Politburo look like Take That.

Another effect could be seen in the worryingly abnormal number of English critics it was deemed suitable to fly over for the Taormina Experience. We were there to take part in a discussion of the Court's work, and I was hoping that the occasion would help me to have some piercing Home Thoughts from Abroad, fresh insights into this key English institution arrived at through viewing it through foreign eyes.

What the Court's energising presence - which included public workshops by Max Stafford-Clark on Shopping and Fucking and by Ian Rickson on Mojo, plus a performance of The Weir - principally exposed for me, though, was a hollowness at the heart of this much-hyped prize. You would only have had to sit through half an hour of the emetic, two-day love-in to Pina Bausch to realise that this prize is ridiculously hung up on, and self- interestedly complicit with, the Cult of the Great Director and the Single Vision, when theatre, of all art forms, is the most collaborative.

But then Taormina, a ravishing coastal location overlooked by Mount Etna, is not best placed to know how to handle a theatrical community like the Court, since it has no theatrical community of its own. The Weir, a delicate, intimate piece originally played in a studio production which converted the theatre into the remote Irish pub where the drama is set, was assigned a vast, cinema-like venue, a move about as appropriate as transplanting The Archers to the amphitheatre at Epidaurus. The poor actors were forced to demonstrate the play rather than live it.

The practical side of theatre is given short shrift in Taormina. As a Swiss ballet critic remarked to me, there was no mention of Peter Pabst, Bausch's longstanding designer whose work is crucial to the Wuppertal Tanztheater's output.

Instead, the Bausch canonisation process consisted of a succession of groupies and employees emoting and waffling. One leggy dancer, too moved by her own feelings to speak coherently, pointed the microphone at her heart, which certainly stumped the simultaneous translators and caused a satisfyingly subversive screech of feedback.

We heard a lot about the speakers themselves. One glamorous, giggling Japanese TV presenter told us that she had a collection of 28,000 erasers and had written an encyclopedia on the subject. "I am deeply moved by their transient existence," she informed us, "but of course Pina herself will never disappear..." This particular testifier to the Pina cult has, we learned, put a white hotel pencil with rubber tip, once used by the great lady, into a test-tube which is on display in her home.

A Billie-Jean King lookalike with a stutter revealed that words always fail her when she sees Pina, but luckily "to be enveloped in her aurora is enough". Meanwhile, Pina, at the back of the hall, received these tributes with a look of sorrowing cosmic acceptance of her own wondrous gifts and the inexpressible Weltzschmerz attached to them.

The Court's contribution was an oasis in this abstract desert. "You English, you're so empirical," declared the French President of the International Association of Theatre Critics, not unadmiringly, after a panel where the practical steps taken to establish reciprocal relationships between foreign theatres were debated by a group including the Court's current artistic director and his last two predecessors.

It also emerged that, with this new wave of dramatists, European theatres (like the Vienna Schauspielhaus) will programme work commissioned by the Court even before it has been unveiled in England. "We don't really buy into that ethos," confessed Stephen Daldry. The Court wants the flow to be two-way, which can't happen if foreign houses have wall-to-wall English productions. Nor are they interested in European shopping sprees: their aim is to develop work with foreign writers, not merely import it.

Hence the Court's International Residency, run by Elyse Dodgson, an annual school for emergent dramatists and directors from theatrical cultures where there is no institution placing new writing at the centre of its activities. This year's residency welcomed students from countries as diverse as Uruguay and Estonia. I witnessed some of the 1999 programme, which included two days of workshops with director Katie Mitchell on Martin Crimp's fascinating extreme of stage- directionless postmodernity Attempts On Her Life; a revealing session on the relationship between dramatist and director in which Stephen Daldry and two actors worked cold on a scene cunningly concocted for the occasion by Phyllis Nagy; and an interactive lecture from Stephen Jeffreys on the six types of logic in dramatic construction.

Compared to this, the internationalism of the European Theatre Prize looks a bit of a confidence trick, strenuously designed to promote a new glamour-by- association image of Sicily: for "mafia" read "theatre". There was loud applause when one of the foreign judges rose at the award ceremony and said words to the effect that the peacefulness of the surroundings belied Sicily's reputation for violence. He can't have been using his eyes, because the Mayor of Palermo, a spearhead of the anti-mafia campaign, had been obliged to bring six bodyguards to the dinner for Pina Bausch as the result of a recent assassination.

The "Taormina Experience" can have positive results. The brilliant, subversively funny Swiss director Christophe Marthaler, who won last year's New Realities prize, found inspiration for his latest piece. He noticed that one of the critics was wearing a name-tag that simply read "Specialist", which sparked off an amusing piece satirising the beleagueredness of experts in these promiscuous, Internet times. On a composite set of a plane and train, the neurotic clinging to specialisms is visualised as a lot of clinging to, lunging at and twisting round poles and straps on a journey to nowhere.

Marthaler repaid the compliment by bringing his piece to Taormina. I think the Royal Court should commission a comic play about the hysteria- inducing soullessness and moral humbug of events like the Premio Europa per il Teatro, and take it back as their contribution to next year's event.