Everything but the kitchen sink

A hilarious German splatter-fest with a body in a trunk; a comic monologue about Russian military service, in which a man eats a dog... Is there nothing that Elyse Dodgson won't programme at the Royal Court?
Click to follow

Going to see a man about a dog is a time-honoured proverbial activity. Last Saturday, though, the Royal Court gave people a slightly rarer experience: the opportunity to go to see a man who has eaten a dog.

The canine-consumer is Evgeny Grishkovets, a young playwright from Siberia and winner of the Russian drama award mysteriously dubbed the Anti-Booker Prize. Grishkovets performed an idiosyncratic, highly amusing and bemused monologue, How I Ate a Dog, which offered a sidelong look at the author's three-year military service in the Russian navy. Interestingly, the event took place not in either of the Court's theatres, but in its spanking new underground bar and restaurant, where the cuisine normally inclines less toward dog than trompettes de la mort on a bed of wilted spinach.

It was an appropriate setting for two reasons. In Moscow, such work is staged in nightclubs, rather than in theatres. And it is as a direct result of the Royal Court's recent interventions in Russian drama that nightclub-theatre started there in the first place and then took off. To understand why, you must look at the philosophy behind the current International Playwrights season in Sloane Square, of which Grishkovets's solo turn was a part.

It's the second such season that the Court has mounted, this time comprising work in progress from Palestine, Russia and France and two new German plays in full production, the first of which - David Gieselmann's gruesomely funny splatter-fest Mr Kolpert - opened last week to great critical acclaim. What are on show here are not pieces cherry-picked during some chequebook-waving raid on the shopping malls of world theatre, but works discovered and developed by the Court's formidable international department, run with flair and determination by Elyse Dodgson.

As a global networker, the Court makes Richard Branson look like an anchorite nun. It extends its benign tentacles through exchange programmes, residencies and workshops abroad and through its international summer school, which offers hands-on tuition to emergent dramatists and directors from countries as diverse as Uruguay and Estonia, where there is no institution dedicated to new writing.

Even Dodgson, though, is taken aback by the speed with which the Russian connection has delivered the goods. The process began only last year, when the Court's literary manager, Graham Whybrow, went out to conduct a seminar. He "started a revolution" by describing to the amazed Russians the kind of British theatre structure in which the right to attend rehearsal and to have first choice of director, designer and cast is written into the playwright's contract.

At the follow-up workshop, the Court dramatist Meredith Oakes innocently suggested the writers bring along some thoughts about modern Moscow. The result was a flood of 17 sketches, which, under the title Moscow Open City, have been performed in joints such as the Gramophone and Propaganda, quickly becoming a cult phenomenon with clubbers. In the West, we associate Russian theatre with crack ensembles and enviably long rehearsal periods, but not with quick-fire responses to the zeitgeist. The Court's initiative has helped to reverse that expectation, as was clear from the vignettes that the director Alexander Galybin, one of few Russian new-writing specialists, staged here last week with English performers. They ranged from a parody of a paranoid Moscow tour guide unconsciously winding up a pair of Belgian backpackers to a surreal drumbeat-driven sketch by Maxim Kurochkin about a baffled spy reporting on the contemporary madness of Moscow for Attila the Hun.

Tonight, the first of the readings from Palestine will be performed, directed by Raeda Ghazaleh, an alumnus of the 1995 royal international residency and the first Palestinian graduate of the Israeli School of Visual Theatre. "She is the one", laughs Dodgson, "who introduced us to lying on the floor of taxis," referring to the famous occasion when Dodgson and the Court's artistic director at the time, Stephen Daldry, had to be smuggled across the border between Israel and Palestine in a commitment to new writing that sounds more James Bond than George Devine.

The relationship with Palestine may have started naively ("It was during the peace process, and we thought, 'Oh, well, we can have Israelis and Palestinians working together,' not even thinking that they would write in different languages and had different theatre traditions"), but both teachers and taught have climbed a steep learning curve here, and the results can be seen tonight and on Saturday.

Another alumnus of the international residency, Marius von Mayenburg, is the author of the second German play to receive a full production. It is Fireface, a literally incendiary drama about teenage alienation that has blazed across the theatres of mainland Europe.

Part of the fascination of a season such as this lies in seeing how well plays transplant to different cultures. Given the nation's recent history, rebellion against parents has a special edge in Germany. In Fireface, though, it's the liberal 1968 generation being rebelled against in turn, even more violently than it attacked its Nazi-connected forebears. Will that element translate?

Dodgson feels that, while it imparts a collective energy to the pieces to introduce them in an international season, the work increasingly does not need such protection. She cites the fact that this time the full productions are being given straight runs, rather than being programmed in rep, and that on the first day of the rehearsal for Mr Kolpert, the Court showed its commitment to Gieselmann's talent by offering him a commission. That could be called "enlightened self-interest" in any language.

New Palestinian Playwrights 17 & 20 May; 'Fireface' 26 May-17 June; New French Playwrights 6-10 June, at the Royal Court, London SW1,020-7565 5000