Millions of us still watch the tanned, bland characters of Neighbours and Home and Away. We idolise Kylie and Nicole Kidman and award Peter Carey the Booker Prize for giving voice to Ned Kelly. In theatre, however, cultural trade between Britain and Australia traditionally leaves the Antipodes with a significant deficit. We regularly export blockbuster musicals and new plays to Sydney and Melbourne, importing very little in return.
Sydney's Company B have been outstanding ambassadors for their country's theatre in London, attracting rave reviews in 1999 and 2001 for the inventive stagecraft and brilliant ensemble acting of the epic Cloudstreet. And yet major Australian productions in the mother country are rare enough to make this month's theatre listings stand out like an England Ashes victory. Madonna makes her West End debut in Up for Grabs, an art-world satire by Queensland-based David Williamson; the Sydney Theatre Company will be on tour with the original Aboriginal play The Cherry Pickers, and Melbourne's Zeal Theatre visit London with The Stones, a two-hander about a real-life manslaughter case.
In Williamson's case, Up for Grabs, which opened in Sydney a year ago, represents a belated West End comeback for the man with no challengers as "Most Popular Australian Playwright of the 20th Century". Since the early 1970s, the 59-year-old has specialised in crowd-pleasing, politically aware works, including Don's Party (a raucous comedy set on the night of Australia's 1969 general election) and The Club (committee-room back-stabbing in Aussie-rules football).
On home turf, these plays have garnered huge audiences and umpteen awards, as well as becoming fixtures on high-school exam syllabuses and staples of the amateur-dramatic repertoire. Williamson, then, is a writer with no need to question his ability to connect with large audiences, but he is certainly not blasé about having his work in the West End for the first time since the short-lived run of Emerald City in 1989. "I'm an Australian playwright, my works are written primarily for and about Australia," he says. "But it's a great bonus when you have a production in the birthplace of English-speaking drama.
"I suppose there is a lingering feeling in Australia of cultural isolation. Like any small country, we like to get noticed in bigger cultures, like England's and America's. I'd be silly to say that isn't part of my psyche, too. So, yes, being in the West End means a great deal."
It meant even more to him as a young man. In 1973, the Royal Court produced Williamson's second play, The Removalists, a violent account of a rookie cop's first day on the job, and it earned him the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright. "That UK success gave my career a flying start in Australia," he explains. "The cultural cringe in Australia meant that a young Australian had to get recognition in the UK or America before anyone took him seriously at home – that's still true for younger Australian playwrights today."
Acclaim in London was doubly important at a time when, he recalls, "our commercial and subsidised theatres used to do a diet of almost exclusively British and some American plays. They would choose their repertoire by going over to London and New York, seeing what had been a hit and getting the rights. There was a hunger among Australian writers to tell their own stories and for our actors to do their own accents on stage, but we were locked out of our theatres. There was a lot of anger and repressed energy that led to a breakthrough and the blossoming of Australian drama in the early 1970s."
Williamson was at the forefront of that boom, which in turn fuelled the rise of Australian cinema (between 1976 and 1981 he adapted Don's Party and The Club for the screen, and wrote Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously). He has continued to average a new play a year, alternating between what he calls "social comedies" and harder-hitting tales, both categories usually set within a particular sphere of Australian life. He focused on the police in The Removalists, academia in The Department and Dead White Males, the law in Top Silk, politics in The Great Man, and fiction publishing in Soulmates (his 29th play, which premiered in Sydney three weeks ago).
In London, he was championed in the 1970s and early 1980s by the expatriate Australian director Michael Blakemore, who views Williamson's plays collectively as "a social history of post-war Australia" and staged successful productions of Don's Party, The Club and Travelling North (a gentle comedy about an elderly couple's romance).
In the last 20 years, however, Williamson has found UK support more elusive. "It's been a source of frustration," he admits, "because there have always been people in Britain who've thought my writing has something to say." He believes that he and contemporaries like Hannie Rayson (whose facile take on intellectual and sexual liberty, Life After George, flopped in the West End earlier this year) have an inherent disadvantage as they seek British production. "It's the difficulty of a smaller culture convincing a larger one that anything it does is worthwhile," he suggests. "New Zealand has the same problem with us. There are a lot of fine playwrights in New Zealand, but they hardly ever get a production in Australia, because theirs is regarded – wrongly – as a smaller, less interesting culture."
The Australian playwrights' struggle for recognition over here may also be a case of familiarity breeding neglect, because the white, urban, middle-class landscape of their work is so comprehensively mined by British writers and by more fashionable US dramatists.
Most importantly, plays by Anglo-Celtic Australians lack the "exotic" ingredients of Aboriginal drama such as The Cherry Pickers. The myths, songs and stories of the indigenous people's terrible persecution have no equivalent in British theatre, giving Aboriginal work the Unique Selling Point that our producers fail to detect in Williamson and Co. Witness the fact that The Cherry Pickers is the third Aboriginal play brought by director Wesley Enoch to London in the last five years, following Seven Stages of Grieving, about the history of Aboriginal Australia, and Stolen, which presented devastating first-person accounts of Aboriginal children forcibly handed over to white families.
The Cherry Pickers, written by Kevin Gilbert in 1968 and generally regarded as the first Aboriginal play, follows a group of men and women facing disruption to the annual fruit harvest which has traditionally provided their only relief from crippling poverty and prejudice. "This play is a classic," wrote Enoch in a programme note for his production, which opened in Sydney in February 2001. "It's full of the dilemmas facing Indigenous Australia, and lets neither white nor black off the hook. It [challenges us] not to become imitation whitemen, to find our new way forward, to carry our old and new cultures into the future."
Speaking from Sydney last week, Enoch was delighted to learn that an accident of timing had made The Cherry Pickers part of an ad hoc Australian Drama Festival, alongside Up for Grabs and The Stones, a fast-moving, acrobatic piece in which writer-directors Tom Lycos and Stefo Natsou perform numerous roles. "I think this shows how diverse and energetic Australian theatre is at the moment," Enoch says. "Up for Grabs is very, very funny. The Stones is a very gritty, strong kind of piece, and Cherry Pickers is very different again. We can choke on the tourist images of Australia that we like to promote, so it's important for people in the UK to see the other sides to this country."
The only drawback to the May showcase for Australian diversity is Madonna. At her suggestion and with, he says, Williamson's full agreement, the action of Up for Grabs has been transplanted from Sydney to New York. The drama surrounding the sale of a Brett Whiteley painting for A$2m (£750,000) now involves a Jackson Pollock priced at US$20m (£13m). Williamson has his highest-profile West End outing in 30 years, and some of his audience won't know they're watching an Australian play.
'Up for Grabs' previews at Wyndhams Theatre, London WC1 (020-7369 1736, returns only) from 13 May. 'The Cherry Pickers' opens on 9 May at the Library Theatre, Manchester (0161-236 7110) then tours: Brighton Festival (01273 709 709); Salisbury Playhouse (01722 320 333); Northcott Theatre, Exeter (01392 493 493); Djanogly Theatre, Nottingham (0115 846 7777). 'The Stones' is at the Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000) 20-25 May, and the Albany, London SE8, 27-31 May (020-8692 4446)Reuse content