It's a very strange play but I think I like it now

You've got just one week to learn, rehearse and compose music for Dylan Thomas's classic play, and you don't all speak the same language! Emma Haughton is impressed
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Weaving my way carefully through the varied crowd of students sitting watching the final rehearsal, I find a seat with a clear view. On the stage, two girls are engaged in a dialogue. It takes a few minutes for my ears to get used to hearing Dylan Thomas's lyrical prose pronounced with strong French and German accents.

Suddenly the cast breaks into giggles; someone has muffed their lines. But with a quick prompt from Clodagh Alcock, head of performing arts here at Sheldon School in Chippenham, the group of French, German and English teenagers are off again, galloping flawlessly through the ultimate Welsh play, Under Milk Wood. A troupe of black-clad dancers performs an elaborate clock dance, their pendulum movements precise and fluid. As trumpets and violins accompany one girl singing her text, I realise that the music is not pre-recorded, but emanating from the student orchestra behind the stage.

After a while you tune out the accents, and the Welshness of the play shines through. Watching these serious, confident faces, you start to see the point of this arts week, the second leg in a three-year project between three European secondary schools. The different nationalities melt away; the young performers look so relaxed, as if they've been working together for months. Only they haven't. This is Friday; the group of 15 French, 30 German and 30 English teenagers met on Monday, and this is only their fourth rehearsal. Tonight they will play to a packed audience of parents, students and staff.

Finally, after 45 minutes, the room breaks into applause. The cast takes a relieved bow. "Really excellent," says Clodagh, clearly delighted. "You should be very, very proud." And with a warning not to giggle if they forget their lines, the group disperses.

I grab the chance to chat to some of the students. Maren, 18, is from Schiller Gymnasium in Hameln, Germany. She had hardly studied the play before arriving in England, she tells me in near-perfect English, and had to learn all her lines this week. "It is a very strange play, the situations and the people and dialogue. But now I think I like it." Laurie, 16, from the Lycee Corot in Savigny-sur-Orge, near Paris, admits she is exhausted. "But it has been wonderful to study drama and find some pen- friends. I will keep good memories of it all."

Guided by Adam Stephens, Sheldon's head of art and the project co-ordinator, I see some of the other achievements of this week, all centred on the life and work of Dylan Thomas. The art exhibition developing ideas from Under Milk Wood. The poems and prose from the creative writing group, much focusing on Tuesday's trip to Laugharne in Wales, Thomas's birth place. The 40-page catalogue and video documenting the whole project. The programme for this evening's performance. All created in five days by students with barely one language in common.

"It has been absolutely brilliant, but fairly hairy," admits Stephens. "It's all been going on simultaneously, and it only came together at the very last minute."

So why a Welsh play? "We needed a thematic starting point for the creative work in different areas," he explains. "The play is ideal in terms of improvisation, dance, and music. Yes, the language is challenging, but I've been absolutely astounded by the communication skills of the French and German students."

He's not the only one. Seventeen-year-old Jamie Ratcliffe, a sixth-former at Sheldon, was part of the creative writing team. "On Monday we had a very intense discussion of Thomas's poems," he tells me. "It was fascinating hearing the perspective of the French and Germans from their own culture. It has really broadened my horizons, and somehow helped me to understand Thomas and the Welsh culture better."

This whole project, funded under the European Cominius scheme, is the brainchild of Sheldon's former head of modern languages, arising from a decade of exchange links between the three schools. Last year, the Lycee Corot hosted a week of sculpture based on the work of Rodin; next year will focus on science and the Expo 2000 exhibition in Hanover.

Despite its roots in school exchanges, the purpose is less to do with language development than cross-cultural awareness. "It gives the students the experience of working together on a common theme with high quality teaching," says Stephens. "It's a chance to contribute to something quite unique and special. That's the aim of Cominius. People talk about European co-operation and understanding, but this is it in action."

On my way back, I drop into Bath youth hostel, where the French and German groups are staying. With the performance starting in a couple of hours, there is an air of nervous exhilaration. "It has been wonderful," says Christa Brandt, a French and geography teacher at Schiller, who tells me that all music and songs accompanying the play were actually composed this week. Not only that, but most of the dancers have never had any instruction. "It's a real achievement for them," she says . "It's the first time for most that they have done something like this. They've enjoyed themselves, and made some good contacts."

English teacher Yves Dauban, from the Lycee Corot, is equally enthusiastic. "We've been under such pressure since Monday; everything had to be put together today, but there have been many benefits. The students have gained a better image of themselves, they are more self-confident, more outgoing, from mixing with so many different people."

Two French students join us, eager to discuss their experience of being in the orchestra. "We had to compose the introduction to the play," says trumpet-playing Gildas, 17. "The notes are called different things in French and English, which took some getting used to, but I loved playing here. There are many rules in French music; here you are free to learn and improvise."

Antoine, 17, plays the violin. "It's so good that in England you can learn how to compose at school," he enthuses. "In France it has to be private. There is such great excitement here."

They both grin at me earnestly. Somehow, I know that tonight's performance will bring the house down.