The world stage

Foreign playwrights - Aleks Sierz on why the British are so suspicious of international drama

Britons today eat curry and sushi, read translated novels, dress like Italians, drive German cars and listen to world music. Our favourite films are as likely to be made in Iran as in Hollywood. So why are we so suspicious of foreign drama?

Take, for example, London's Royal Court, whose biennial international playwrights season is about to open. Last year, this venue staged a play called Blood by the Swedish playwright Lars Noren - and not in its tiny upstairs studio, but in its main theatre. Despite being a daring mix of symbolism and naturalism, Blood was savaged by the critics: "phoney baloney", snarled one; "boring, silly, exploitative", rasped another; "quite preposterous", condemned a third. They might as well have erected a huge sign outside the theatre in Sloane Square reading: "Foreign rubbish - don't see this show!"

What went wrong? Elyse Dodgson, who heads the Court's international department, says: "Blood didn't strike a chord with our audience. Some of Noren's plays give an insight into society, but Blood was too far removed from reality - a Swede writing about a South American couple living in France. I don't think it offered what people want from international work, which is to understand parts of the world they don't know about."

This year's international season certainly aspires to fulfill this demand. Beginning with a double bill by the Brazilian Marcos Barbosa, it also features a play by the Russian Vassily Sigarev and readings of Cuban drama. As usual, the season is the product of the Royal Court's work with young writers throughout the year. As Dodgson puts it, "Our motto is: we don't go shopping, we cook. Too many theatres just buy in plays - the trick is to create a vibrant local new play culture."

The 26-year-old Barbosa is a typical Royal Court protege: the theatre first discovered him at one of its workshops in Sao Paulo in 2001. He had originally trained as an engineer, but then did a course in playwriting and has since moved to Salvador. In 2002, he attended the Court's summer school, and last year the theatre held a reading of one of his plays.

Unlike Noren's Blood, Barbosa's work fits in with the Royal Court's social- realist aesthetic. He has a distinctive and original voice, and although he is fascinated by history, the plays performed here are very contemporary. Almost Nothing, for example, is about Brazil's pervasive urban violence and its effect on the middle classes.

If the problem with Blood was its form, does the Court look for foreign writers who play safe theatrically? No, says Dodgson: "We look for work that is original, hard-hitting, provocative and contemporary, but we never talk about its form - that's up to the individual writers. We positively discourage history plays or adaptations or writers who mimic British work."

Last year, the Royal Court staged Terrorism, a dream play by the Russian Presnyakov Brothers. Yet, although it was a dream, the production conformed to the Court's preference for social realism. Likewise, while recent plays by German writers had an element of surrealism, it was only a small element.

Still, the Court's international work is popular. Shows sell out and even readings pack the studio theatre. According to Dodgson, the British appetite for foreign drama has grown because the plays are relevant to audiences and feed their curiosity about other countries. This wasn't always the case. The Court's international department, established in 1995, had to reverse 20 years of neglect.

The Royal Court isn't the only theatre exploring international drama. The Gate Theatre in west London, headed by Erica Whyman, specialises in non-British writing, mixing new work and classics. Whyman believes that "British audiences are a bit shy of foreign work, especially when it plays with narrative form or doesn't have a familiar setting. An enormous amount of new work from Europe is set in an abstract world or in someone's mind. Or it plays with form, typically not having a linear structure, and moving between dream time and real time."

The British naturalistic tradition is so strong that sometimes critics and audiences can't overcome their preconceptions, and experiments in imaginative playwriting are often seen as failures. But Whyman argues that "people under 25 and over 55 are more open to new foreign plays: the younger audience is excited by live art or installations, so they like theatre because it's different to watching television or film".

European classics tend to do better than new plays. One of London's biggest hits last year was the rarely staged Albert Camus play Caligula. It was translated by David Greig, a Scottish playwright who points out that, in the 1950s, the most performed playwright in the West End was the Frenchman Jean Anouilh, and that both Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionescu were also products of French theatre. Here the Royal Court is again cast as the baddie, because the success of its production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in 1956 made "a kind of shorthand naturalism" - in Greig's words, "the default mode of new plays" that has dominated theatre ever since.

So are the plays in the Royal Court's international season popular simply because they are naturalistic and accessible? Not necessarily, counters Dodgson, arguing that Little Englander attitudes are on the decline. Nevertheless, as the example of Blood suggests, we are more likely to tolerate foreign plays if they don't stray too far from reality.

The international playwrights season at the Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000) opens on 5 February