Theatre: An exotic tongue-sandwich to chew on

The Royal Court's New European Writers' season has certainly thrown up some challenging cultural differences. And, reports Paul Taylor, one surprise discovery: the Germans really do have a sense of humour, it's just the translators who don't.

It was a hard act to follow. The afternoon had begun with as haunting and peculiar a semi-staged production as you are ever likely to encounter. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director of Berlin's Baracke Theater, Suzuki, Alexej Schipenko's dreamlike, funny-tragic mood-piece of a play, presented the Royal Court audience with a bizarre phenomenon: an English translation of a German translation of a drama, written in his native tongue by an immigrant Russian, in which English actors play members of Berlin's Turkish community who, in turn, speak a made-up cod Turkish. This latter lingo is, at one point, inexactly parodied by the protagonist, a wild-card German who seems to be adrift in a cultural no man's land. In the end, he is madly, murderously desperate to become an honorary member of an alien culture.

Well, if that doesn't represent internationalism, I don't know what does. It was my task, straight afterwards, to chair a discussion about new writing in the German theatre of the 1990s and about the Royal Court's New European Writers' Season, which has just brought five examples of contemporary German drama to the attention of the English public. Aware that, in the wake of Schipenko's exotic tongue-sandwich, the afternoon was about to take a turn into the merely bilingual, I apologised for not delivering my introduction in Urdu with surtitles in one of the African clicking languages. I also emphasised that we were here to talk about German drama not in the context of a season that had simply imported the original productions, but in the context of one that had set out to re-create the plays with English translators, actors and directors. The mediation is part of the message: how different cultures perceive each other is the on-going question.

The debate threw up interesting issues and, occasionally, threw diplomacy to the winds. Asked if he found anything unsatisfactory in the season, Thomas Ostermeier criticised another panel member, the dramatist Meredith Oakes, for her translation of Holy Mothers, a hilariously lavatorial look at the cultural frustrations of three elderly cleaning ladies by the late Austrian dramatist, Werner Schwab. Schwab's dialogue, declared Ostermeier, drolly reflects the way a certain German mentality affects to speak in "officialese" and, for him, that was inadequately conveyed in the English version. This, in turn, led people to wonder how far Ostermeier's ear appreciated the way the translator had transposed this manner into the equivalent English habit of mincing along a parapet of pursed genteelisms over the quaking bog of bodily functions.

Bad feeling at one point flared between the German participants. Ostermeier described as "fucking bullshit" the complaints of a number of the dramatists present that, in Germany, writers are expected to abandon their texts to egomaniacal directors and then make themselves respectfully scarce. Ostermeier implied that writers hug this grievance to themselves and, even when invited into the rehearsal room, don't show up. Meredith Oakes said that the situation in England, though very much better, was far from ideal. Directors will always tell a writer it's "not the right time" to attend; for some, "it's never the right time".

David Tushingham, who translated two of the plays in the season and was the dramaturg when Michael Bogdanov was Intendant of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, pointed out the miserable proportion of German theatre's relatively huge subsidy that can be used for new play development.

One thing we all agreed upon was that the season had dealt a hefty blow to the firm English prejudice which claims that the German sense of humour is a bit like Eskimo wind-surfing: quite a turn up for the book when it happens. As well as the uproarious Schwab, there was Andreas Marber's Parrots' Lies, about the psychologically fraught rehearsal period of a play called A Piece of Shit (a name whose applicability widens considerably as the drama proceeds) and, even better, Oliver Bukowski's four-letter "hard-core farce" 'Til Denver, in which two ne'er-do-wells turn kidnapper. The only snag, ransom-wise, is that there's a corpse on one side of the equation and a preternaturally unfeeling father on the other.

I couldn't help noticing that Irina Brown of the Tron Theatre was deep in conversation with Bukowski and his agent at the reception after the debate. That a particular kind of German dramatist would find a home from home in Scotland is the kind of insight that stimulating international seasons such as this are designed to provoke.

New European Writers' Season: David Planell's `Bazaar' tonight, then 13, 16, 19 Dec; Christophe Pellet's `One More Wasted Year' 12, 15, 18 Dec. 8pm Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, West St, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)

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