It has passed into theatrical mythology that it took a British production (at the National Theatre) to alert Broadway to the existence and merits of Angels in America, a play that the US now recognises as a contemporary classic of its indigenous stage. Tony Kushner's epic had at least been composed on home ground, though, and it had had a San Francisco premiere. What Britain gave it was the level of recognition it deserved, superb production values and a high profile.
Now compare the case of the young Spanish dramatist, David Planell, whose comedy Bazaar is about to be produced as part of the Royal Court's ambitious New European Writers' Season (a season which opens tonight with a French play, Christophe Pellet's One More Wasted Year). When Planell first came to the Court's annual International Summer School in 1995, he had never written a piece for theatre, let alone had one staged.
His background was in television, where one of his deeply unenviable hack jobs was choosing the clips and writing the linking material for a Spanish Jeremy Beadle on a You Have Been Framed-type series. It is the farcical desire to re-shoot fake footage of a real-life bike accident (and so clean up on the two million pesetas prize money for winning clips) that animates Bazaar, a very funny three-hander about the hazards of cultural integration, featuring two of Madrid's Moroccan immigrant community and a white-trash Spaniard.
This first piece for the stage has recently garnered the Best Comedy Award in Spain, played a 2,000-seater theatre there and gone on a major tour. But that sequence is, in fact, deceptive. The Court had already programmed John Clifford's translation into its 97/8 season before Planell's play was picked up in Spain and it is safe to say that Bazaar would not exist in the form it does - or with its zingy, heightened speech rhythms - if its author had not attended that Summer School or if the Court, in the past four years, had not set up its careful network of foreign-exchange programmes (the longest of which is with the Deutsches Theater, Berlin).
Planell's piece illustrates, therefore, a key feature of this season (which includes, as well as three full productions, programmes of rehearsed readings and context-providing seminars). The main items are not the result of some European shopping spree, raiding the foreign supermarkets of their established best buys. They are the result of sustained development work by the Court itself.
The International Summer School began in the lean, mean Eighties as a way - and people are pretty frank about this - of making easy money for the cash-strapped Court. Like one of those well-heeled EFL colleges that bask in the lucrative shadow of Oxford or Cambridge, the students then were mostly rich American kids. In the past few years, though, under Elyse Dodgson, the earth-mother-like head of the Court's international department, and with new financial input from the British Council, the School has become a thriving place where aspiring writers and directors from countries that have no new-writing culture to speak of can come into close working contact with a culture specifically devoted to developing new work.
Listening to the enthusiasts of this scheme and of the various two-way exchange programmes, you sometimes feel that it would take the novelistic pen of a David Lodge to do justice to the whole thing. There are stories of Elyse Dodgson and the Court's artistic director, Stephen Daldry, having to lie down together on the floor of the taxi that was smuggling them across the border between Israel and Palestine - surely the only time anyone has ever traversed the border in quite that posture in search of new writing.
There are tales of Third World participants having fits when treated to their first dose of good old stage-depicted homosexuality. And many students, you reckon, leave the course knowing the meaning of "rumpy pumpy" in more than one language. Some cross-fertilisings of the cultural type can also make you smile. Coming from a poetic, non-character-led playwriting scene, David Planell found his voice by listening to vibrant Anglo-American voices like that of Jez (Mojo) Butterworth. But he also fell under the spell of Nigel Williams, whose ill-fated Harry and Me he is currently translating into Spanish. You wonder whether the Court should have this last on its conscience rather than on its list of proud achievements.
The New European Writers' Season and the work and philosophy behind it are fraught with risks and difficulties. But having had access to this year's scripts and talked to some of the participants, I'm convinced that it is precisely because it is exploratory and full of open-ended opportunity - and unsure of success - that it is worth doing. The whole question of how cultures perceive/misperceive and present/misrepresent each other is thrown right on to the centre of the table.
How, for example, do you communicate to an English audience a play like Dea Loher's Stranger's House, which in the original is written mostly in the subjunctive, wrapping the events in a strange hypotheticality, and in Hoch-Deutsch, for which there is no equivalent linguistic register? Does the mere fact of lumping writers together in national categories, like some Olympic swimming team, make us too ready to spot preoccupations in them we have already decided are representative? For example, is Stranger's House quite as quintessentially "about the guilt of the survivor" as we would like to think?
Graham Whybrow, the Court's literary manager, is persuasive that you can't prematurely abstract new plays from the theatrical and political context that gave them their first lease of life. Hence the value of exchange programmes which enable people to see the production aesthetics you could never deduce from the page. He cites the work of Christoph Marthaler (whose Murx and Stunde Null have since been seen at LIFT) as an exciting demonstration that you can create a stark, compelling piece of theatre without needing a play.
Just how different a theatrical culture can be was brought home to me when I spent a few days in Berlin recently, meeting, among others, two of the young playwrights whose work will be performed in the Goethe Institute- sponsored series of rehearsed readings that are part of the Court season. Simone Schneider's Malaria presents a future-shock vision of Berlin, where the noise from the ubiquitous building sites that have shot up since Unification is driving the rats into panicked overbreeding. Focusing on a couple of porn-loving ne'er-do-wells who have a corpse in the freezer, Oliver Bukowski's Bis Denver (rendered by David Spencer as Jamaica) is an extraordinarily pungent splurge of language, half East German demotic, half invented, that makes James Kelman sound like Jane Austen. Even a bilingual speaker might quail, pondering how you would translate a typical line like "Wer a shite-heap a shaped up shit wat sum pisshead blew life inter" back into the original.
One telling feature of our three-cornered meeting was that the two German playwrights clearly weren't acquainted nearly as well as two equivalent English dramatists would be: they spent a fair bit of time arguing with each other about the best strategy for improving a theatrical landscape where a dramatist is expected to hand over a play to the ego of the director and then effectively vanish; where there's no meeting place for playwrights; where (despite the fact that there's no separation in Germany between publisher and agent) there isn't a culture of reading plays in book form and thus extending their influence; and where audiences, reared on the latest interpretation of the classics, will tend to ask of a new play not "What is it about?" but "How was it done?"
For various reasons too complicated to go into here, Schneider and her Theater Neuen Typs group argue for secession, Bukowski for pragmatic collaboration. They will be able to continue that dialogue in December when, in what is a tribute to the current season and the philosophy behind it, they will meet again at the Royal Court.
Booking: 0171-565 5000Reuse content