Весь мир на сцене. Международный проект театра «Ройял Корт»
The Guardian (23-02-2002)

All the world on stage

Have British plays become too parochial? The Royal Court is linking up with directors and playwrights from around the world who have urgent stories to tell

Mark Espiner
Saturday February 23, 2002
The Guardian

One of the most arresting pieces of theatre in London's West End last year wasn't a musical, a Noel Coward revival or a radical new interpretation of Shakespeare. It wasn't even in English. It was a play from start to finish in Arabic, with English subtitles, presented by a Palestinian theatre company, dealing with the intifada, or uprising, in Israel and the occupied territories.

Al-Kasaba Theatre's Alive From Palestine at the Royal Court dramatically expressed what it is like to live under bullets and bombs. The sequence of staged personal accounts — which included a distraught man going through his dead son's school satchel, weeping over his uneaten packed lunch and unfilled schoolbooks — provoked tears and a standing ovation from the audience. In a way that a foreign news report never could, it movingly articulated how people try to live ordinary lives in an extraordinary and desperate situation.

“The principal subject matter of British theatre is horrifically parochial,“ says playwright David Hare. „If you asked me what is the main problem besetting British theatre, it is that the subject matter of the new plays that are being presented tends to be so narrow in relation to what we know the complexity of the world to be.”

The Royal Court played a key role in bringing Al-Kasaba to London, and this month marks the opening of its own celebration of international theatre. Twenty-two new plays from 13 countries will be performed or read on themes ranging from an Italian reaction to last year's riots in Genoa, Argentina's response to the near anarchy in recent weeks on its streets, immigration and asylum issues in Europe, and American reaction to September 11; tackling what Hare calls a “hugely difficult undertaking” — namely, turning British theatre's face towards the problems that face the rest of the world.

The International Playwrights Season, founded by Elyse Dodgson, is the culmination of what Stephen Daldry, the Royal Court's former artistic director and director of Billy Elliot, calls the “aggressive international policy“ of the theatre to initiate abroad what it has done here: nurture new playwrights and thus new plays. Daldry sums it up: „Writers don't fall off trees. They emerge because you create the structures in which they can emerge.”

The Royal Court has the know-how for creating and staging plays. Its international partners have the stories to tell and the enthusiasm to find new ways of presenting them — the idea over the past 12 years has been to marry the two. Teams of writers and directors from the Royal Court have run playwriting workshops in places separated as much by culture as by physical distance: Kampala and Moscow, the Palestinian towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem, Bangalore, Siberia and the Brazilian city of Salvador. “They are long-term projects, we wanted to build relationships,” says Dodgson. «So we go back and back; six years to Uganda, seven years to Palestine. I often make the point in new countries that, in 1956, we didn't have a theatre of new writing in Britain — it's something you have to create and sustain.» Links have been established with European theatres, and an international residency programme in London has been set up, attended every year by more than 20 young playwrights and directors from as many countries.

The department driving the Royal Court's international programme is, astonishingly, a tiny three-person team. «The original vision of the Royal Court was as an international theatre of new writing — in the 1950s we did Brecht, Genet, Sartre, Beckett in French, at the same time as we were doing Look Back In Anger,» says Dodgson. «In the 1970s and 80s, we lost the international focus — there was a lot of work being done on plays about what it was like to live in Thatcher's Britain, and I think we were pretty obsessed by it. But in 1989, when there were all these huge changes in the world, we decided we wanted to address what was happening outside of Britain again.»

There followed a huge, and continuing, funding drive. When Daldry became artistic director in 1992, he saw that the teachers who were taking the international workshops were the likes of Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill and David Hare, and was keen to support the programme; the British Council backed the initiative. It provided the funds to bring writers and directors from 15 countries to take part in the residency. It was the beginning of a long and continuing partnership. But what neither the theatre nor the British Council could have anticipated was the zeal that some of these new students would take away from the course, and what the hugely productive knock-on effects would be.

Raeda Ghazaleh was the first Palestinian to attend the residency in 1995. Enthused by the working processes, and seeing how they could help make the events of the daily struggle at home become dramatic stories, the 29-year-old director set about gathering together a group of writers when she returned to Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. She relates how central the Royal Court has been to her own development and, by implication, to that of the nascent Palestinian theatre. “The moment I came

to know the Royal Court, it was a whole change to my life. A big turn for me of dealing with text and new playwriting. It is sharing and it is just magic.“

It took two years for the young theatre director to find eight writers with whom she could begin to work. “We had writers,“ she says, “but not playwrights.” Dodgson backed her initiatives and travelled with playwright Stephen Jeffreys and director Phyllida Lloyd to hold workshops with the group in Bethlehem. Lloyd helped them discover improvised storytelling techniques, while Jeffreys worked on dramatic structure. „Most of the plays they wanted to write were on their political situation,” recalls Jeffreys. He explains that, although Palestinians have a very developed literary culture, they do not have a developed dramatic one. Much of their understanding of playwriting comes from Egyptian traditional theatre, which has a standard three-act form. Jeffreys spent some of his time in the workshops encouraging them to think freely about the form, to write as many scenes as they needed to tell their stories.

That was not the only challenge that he had to face. „My strangest experience,” he says, «was that outside, during the workshop, there was a riot going on, with Israelis firing plastic bullets and people being taken off on stretchers. I told them I was finding it very hard to continue the workshop. But they said,'We have a riot every day, but we don't have a workshop every day — carry on.' I thought, well, you couldn't get more dramatic than that.»

Despite the unrelenting problems of having to negotiate Israeli checkpoints on the way to performances, Ghazaleh has succeeded in setting up and maintaining her thriving theatre, Inad, in Beit Jala. “I would like the theatre to be stronger. A new generation who can write and can talk to the whole world through theatre.” Her hopes already seem to be coming true. «One of my friends who was coming to a rehearsal was arrested, and we didn't know what had happened to him. After a few months, the Israelis said they were putting him in prison. He is in prison now, for two years. But he sometimes gets a mobile smuggled in, so we talk. And I asked him to write about what is going on around him, and he is writing from the prison and sending me some scripts. He's lost his brother to the Israelis while he's been in there.all this story around one 25-year-old.» Dodgson has brought over the early stages of this work, called When Will It End?, as part of the International Season.

Ghazaleh's energy and enthusiasm is not an isolated case. There is a similar evangelical attitude in Moscow, following the blistering success of a series of seminars and workshops held there by the Royal Court and the British Council in 1999. Young Russian writers, frustrated by the dated and conservative theatre structures in their country, and unable to progress because of them, were enormously inspired by the Royal Court's methods, observing how writer and director work together in rehearsal. But what seems to have fired them the most was the “Verbatim Project“. When writers in one of the workshops said that there was a real need for new plays on contemporary social and political issues, Dodgson discussed with them the idea of using the verbatim technique of taping personal accounts and testimony on current issues, and then using the transcripts as the basis for a play. The group responded immediately, creating a piece based on one person's first-hand account of the civil war in Georgia. This project spawned several other theatre pieces on subjects ranging from racism to domestic violence and disappointment in the west.

Young Russian writers and theatre makers went on to set up an independent group. “It would not be an exaggeration,” says Sasha Dugdale, the British Council's arts officer in Moscow, „to say that the project has revolutionised thinking about theatre in Russia.” Vassily Sigarev's play, Plasticine, emerged in the workshops. The play, currently enjoying cult status in Moscow, is the centrepiece of the International Season. It is a poetic vision of alienation and degradation, based on the playwright's own experience in the Urals town of Verkhnyay-Solda, just outside Nizhniy Tagil — a neglected and deprived industrial city on the edge of Siberia, with high rates of drug addiction and Aids.

In a cosy cafe, not far from Moscow's Red Square, with the snow falling outside, young Russian theatre makers talk about the methods and practices they have learned. “We have the zeal and the energy of the newly converted,” says 31-year-old writer Maksim Kurochin. «The Royal Court has really changed things. It has accelerated a way of working. It means 18-,

19-, 20-year-olds have come to realise that they are not slaves but managers of theatre.» And then he adds, with determination, “We want to make a clone of the Royal Court in Russia. Of course, it will be different, but the central ideas will be like the Royal Court.“

But the word “clone” suggests questionable ramifications of the Royal Court's international mission. Isn't this Starbucks theatre, a kind of cultural imperialism, imposing methods to create certain kinds of stories that would fit nicely into a Shopping And Fucking-type programme at the Royal Court?

Sally Cowling, head of arts at the British Council, dismisses the charge. „I think this is as far removed from being culturally imperialist as you possibly can be. It is all about reciprocity and mutual respect.” The preoccupations and the skills, she says, are specific to the people who are taking the workshop, so they change radically with each project. Moreover, she adds, the individual projects always start from a base that has been developed by those attending the workshops themselves.

A writing workshop in progress in Salvador illustrates Cowling's point. Salvador, the beautiful Portuguese colonial city, musical capital of Brazil, with its 80% black population and a police force that recently went on strike, is full of stories. In the rehearsal room in the Vila Velha theatre, the group has pasted large pieces of paper to the walls. Each one carries a headline theme pertinent to their Brazilian lives: the carnivalisation of culture, the problems of black identity in society, the tolerance of different beliefs, growing violence and poverty. The writers scrawl their thoughts on the subjects, then playwright Carl Miller, along with Dodgson, help them give dramatic structures to these and other ideas. As scenes take shape, the group chips in and debates the issues, and helps to solve the dramatic problems. It is a moment of real creative sharing.

The performed work resulting from such meetings is rewarding to all concerned. “We need stories from Ekaterinberg to Kampala,“ says Daldry. “When we break out and embrace that culture and believe ourselves to be part of one world, rather than one little bit of the world, [this international work] has a serious moral purpose, as well as an artistic purpose.” The Royal Court's current artistic director, Ian Rickson, who is enthusiastically supporting its foreign policy, agrees: „Our links around the world have become stronger and stronger. We need to shift our thinking from an island mentality to a global mentality.”

That shift, perhaps in the wake of recent world events, is clearly happening. And a thirst for other stories from other places is being awakened. All the world is, indeed, a stage

The International Playwrights Season runs at the Royal Court Theatre, London, until April 6. For further information, call the box office on 020—7565  5000, or email: info@royalcourttheatre.com.
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