This autumn sees new plays by writers from Chile, Syria and Ukraine at the Royal Court. Eleanor Turney explores the theatre’s workshop programmes around the world, which have had a profound influence on international and UK artists alike
How the Royal Court puts the world at the heart of its work
Fireworks (2015) by Dalia Taha, who took part in Royal Court's international playwriting group in Palestine. Photograph: Helen Maybanks.
For over 20 years, the British Council and the Royal Court theatre in London have been working together to nurture playwrights from around the world. Elyse Dodgson, International Director of the Royal Court, has coordinated long-term play development projects all over the world, from Argentina to China, from Georgia to India, and from Nigeria to Palestine.
This season features B by Guillermo Calderón from Chile, Goats by Liwaa Yazji from Syria and Bad Roads by Natal’ya Vorozhbit from Ukraine. All three plays have come out of long-term relationships that the Royal Court has built with the playwrights, based on workshops, readings and development.
“I think audiences expect something different when we produce international work,” says Dodgson. “This season is going to be surprising, as all international work is, because it’s rooted in a different place. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything quite as ambitious as Goats before.”
I asked Yazji what audiences can expect from Goats: “The war creates a capacity to normalise absurdity; everything is possible. I hope the audience will have the chance to see a different story coming from war; a story that can hopefully apply to any community taken by fear.”
Calderón’s B is altogether different. “My work is usually political,” he explains. “It’s about a wave of bombs in Chile that were organised by young anarchists. Chile hasn’t been able to let go of its violent past. I decided to explore this by writing a play around these people who are discussing exactly how far can they go with their struggle.”
"This season is going to be surprising, as all international work is, because it’s rooted in a different place"
B in rehearsal. Photograph: Helen Murray.
Alejandra Szczepaniak, British Council Arts Manager in Chile, tells me that the country has a history of political theatre and that the Royal Court’s involvement in this play is important. “Recognition from an institution like the Royal Court, it’s a feather in your cap. It sends a message that looking at politics and power and humanity from a theatrical perspective adds a rich layer to conversations that are being had all over the world. It adds to the relevance of politics, and shows how theatre and life inform each other.”
Neil Webb, British Council Director Theatre and Dance, explains why the partnership was set up: “We work with many new writing theatres around the UK, but the great thing about the Royal Court is that they have both an international department and an international programme. We look for partners who can provide opportunities for new work from other countries to be seen in the UK. We live in a time of global shifts, which bring new challenges to understanding each other, and so this work is more important now than ever.”
For Dodgson, there was no doubt that international work has a place at the Royal Court: “In terms of new writing, it’s what the theatre is set out for. That has never changed. As the world gets more complex, and communication becomes more vital, we have audiences that are curious and know that what happens to them is going to be affected by things that are happening outside this country.”
"My time in Palestine was transforming to me"
David Greig, who has worked with the Royal Court in many countries, tells me how important the work has been to him, and to other British writers: “I’m 100% sure the international programme has a massive value to British playwriting and directing, by the very simple fact that it’s exposing so many of the major writers and directors of our time to other writing cultures and living cultures, so regularly and so deeply and in such a committed way.”
“My time in Palestine was transforming to me, and it was transforming to Rufus [Norris], and he’s now the Artistic Director of the National Theatre. You could say that this programme has shaped what the NT is now, because of that sense of shaping the individuals. It forces us to de-centre ourselves and makes us realise that we’re part of a bigger world, and there are other ways of seeing and other ways of writing. It’s an encounter, a sharing of expertise, a two-way street. So many playwrights have gone somewhere else and come back changed.”
The Royal Court’s international work is supported by the Genesis Foundation, and Founder and Chairman John Studzinski has nothing but praise for Dodgson and the work: “Elyse’s impact on the world of theatre is immense, and includes nurturing and supporting playwrights in war zones, countries that don’t have a culture of contemporary theatre or ones where new voices struggle to write free of censorship. Elyse has immersed herself in the lives of these playwrights and ensured that the Royal Court reaches beyond Sloane Square to make a deep and lasting difference to the world of theatre.”
"This is about sharing ideas, a genuine kind of exploration"
Carole McFadden of the British Council's Theatre and Dance team echoes this: “The Royal Court are amazing at keeping in touch with people; it’s like a family. Elyse is still in touch with people she worked with years and years ago, and that makes it a different sort of relationship.”
Dodgson herself reckons this is because the programme “values the playwright in a way that maybe is unusual where they are. I think it’s really about having a voice, wherever it is in the world. And knowing that there’s a kind of extended family, that will always be there to support your work.”
Szczepaniak is also keen to emphasise Dodgson’s importance to all of this work: “I would like to know what happens when Elyse decides to retire! That is my question, because she’s a huge driving force. I’d be fascinated to see who would be brave enough to take up the baton.”
B in rehearsal. Photograph: Helen Murray.
The Royal Court’s workshops both abroad and at home have opened it up to criticism for trying to create ‘Royal Court-style playwrights’. Is there such a thing? “I don’t think so,” says Dodgson. “If you think of our history, of Beckett, of John Osborne, of Sarah Kane and Edward Bond and Caryl Churchill, there’s no way that there is a Royal Court playwright. The thing that characterises those writers is that the work is original, contemporary, hard-hitting and provocative.”
There are also, potentially, colonialist undertones to British playwrights travelling abroad to run workshops. Dodgson counters: “We are, of course, aware of that history and that isn’t what this is about. This is about sharing ideas, a genuine kind of exploration. I defy anyone who accuses us of that. We always have to be aware and sensitive around it, of course. But our main principle would be to work against it, and this work is so largely done with the British Council, who also work against it.”
Calderón reacts strongly to the suggestion, too. “The Royal Court never tries to teach. What it does is try to listen and show writers the potential of their writing. Writers in a country like Chile or Uruguay or Argentina are eager to receive criticism and knowledge and guidance from a place like the Court, because they have experience, they have a sharp eye. We are eager to learn, but we don’t take teachings of the RC as the last word; it’s just one more opportunity for dialogue.”
"We never stop working in a country; that’s the legacy"
“I have to say the Court has been staging a lot of international writers and my play is just part of the season in which there are going to be other international writers. So it is definitely going both ways. They are not just going to teach. They are going to pick up the most interesting thing they can bring to London – not in a condescending way at all, but to show London audiences the best work that is being done abroad.”
It’s important, too, that the Royal Court’s involvement isn’t fleeting. “I think that we never stop working in a country; that’s the legacy,” says Dodgson. “What we have to do is keep in contact with writers, which we have done, over the years. There are countries that, for one reason or another, we’ve never let go of, since the beginning.”
“What I think is really special about the season is that we are doing three plays that have come out of this long-term work, and two of those writers – Guillermo Calderón and Natal’ya Vorozhbit – are without a doubt the leading writers in their countries now, although their relationship with us started a long time ago. With Natal’ya it was in 2004, with Guillermo it was in 2009. It’s a great privilege to be able to work with them for such a long time. It’s an incredible journey. The international department here coined a phrase, that what we do is cooking not shopping. I think that sums us up.”
Liwaa Yasyi’s Goats is supported by the British Council and came about through a British Council partnered workshop programme for Syrian and Lebanese writers in Lebanon. The Royal Court met Guillermo Calderón and Natal’ya Vorozhbit through international residencies in London, which were supported by the British Council. MINEFIELD by Lola Arias (Argentina), which was made with British Council support, returns to the Royal Court in November.
The Royal Court has run play development projects in partnership with the British Council and with support from the Genesis Foundation in countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Cuba, France, Georgia, Germany, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Palestine, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay and Zimbabwe.
Find out more:
> See what's on at the Royal Court
> Read more about the International Playwrights Programme
> Watch a video of Elyse Dodgson speaking about the Royal Court
> See Royal Court: International, a book about the theatre's work around the world
> Listen to Playwright's Podcast, in which Simon Stephens interviews Royal Court writers