Here’s what led to my question:

Ten years ago, I created Exchange Theatre in order to translate major French plays in English. Major as in really really big. The sort of plays that tour nationally every year in a different production, or whose authors are internationally in general knowledge. Victor Hugo for example, or 20th century symbolist Paul Claudel… the French TS Eliot… You know ? No, you probably don’t. And if you’d know of him, you’d probably never seen anything produced in the Uk. I know because I’m the only director to have done one of his plays in the Uk. And it was the founder show of my company ten years ago. Claudel is huge across the channel. Unknown here. This is just an example from my experience, which led to my question above.

The conversation started with people asking me to explain where I was coming from. I told how I started my company. I was a young actor working on the London Fringe, doing Shakespeare, new writings pieces, and whenever I talked about French theatre to my fellow colleagues there was either a big blank in conversations, or a total misconception of what it is. Seen as terribly classical, Moliere was reduced as period farces, excluding all his depth, and confused with Commedia Dell'Arte… ! Although, Italians were not better known: Pirandello, Dario Fo, even Goldoni are just as obscure as Spanish golden Age of Comedia and I only encountered puzzled faces when mentionning Calderon.

I had trained in France and I had learned not only about Shakespeare but also Marlowe, Wordsworth, Kipling, Dahl, Pasolini, Goethe… I thought there was something terribly missing there. So, because I couldn’t right the wrongs for the whole of Europe and because I trained in France and was the most knowledgeable for it, I set up my company in order to take a niche of bringing French theatre to the Uk and do it justice. Since then, we’ve translated for the first time plays by Feydeau, Sartre and Claudel among the most famous ones, over ten years. Little did I know when I started that there would be so much to do, so much space in the niche.

In the cultural world in the Uk, there is no real figure or calculation of the place of foreign works, although according to the translator Kevin Halliwell, (the only one who translated the National Swedish treasure -playwright Lars Noren- into English) only 3% of work comes from an international background. Which will explain that you’ve never heard of Lars Noren. By comparison, France has 40% and Lars Noren is performed at the National theatre.

So this is how I came up with this provocation, a decade later: In the Uk, outside of English theatre, do we know our foreign foundations too ? The conversation started by this clear statement by an English practitionner: Outside of the performing arts, we certainly don’t because you don’t need to. His explanation is that the educative cursus specialises very rapidly, very young and then, becomes very narrow in University. Even within the performing arts or the cultured world, we tend to lose track of these classic foreign works.

Many in the panel will say that it didn’t use to be this way. And it’s true that when meeting scholars or practitioners older than 45, they do have a real tangible knowledge of Theatrical heritage from outside the Uk. In the 30’s and 40’s apparently, there was a lot more interest to foreign arts in general.

Nowadays the literary, cultured intelligentsia has a certain knowledge but it’s not in the culture in the Uk to share this knowledge to the general public. There is very little room in the medias to disseminate foundations of other cultures or when there is, the researchers, the speakers are invited not to talk about what they want but to talk about what the broadcaster wants, which is mainly suited to the audience. And the audience wants to be told about themselves and what they know much more than foreign narratives.

It appears that directors, dramaturgs are more likely to be more knowledgeable on these questions because they have generally a university background and are led to do research outwards. But for the actors now, actor training is very limited to acting, not to the history of theatre, even less towards foreign history of theatre.

Part of the problem resides in the language. In a world that speaks English universally, there is no need for people to learn other languages, so with no efforts being put in the learning of languages, it’s a whole opening to the rest of the world that gets shut. The general movement in Cultural Exchanges is to go outside and bring back material not to let elements from outside come in and be integrated. This is a recurrent pattern in regards to very many themes, due to certain insularity of Britain and the system of its education too.

When it comes to translating here’s an anecdote about when I was working on my translation of Xavier Durringer’s Bal Trap. I approached Mark Ravenhill because he was credited as the translator of a previous Durringer’splay, and I wanted to know if he would do it again, when he answered “I don’t speak French”. I was confused as his translation had been performed at the Royal Court. Then he explained: his job was to rewrite a litteral translation.

Even Christopher Campbell, literary manager of the National theatre admitted recently at a symposium on French theatre (held at the French Institute) that playwrights are so important in the Uk that their credit as a translator is crucial to the commercial success of a show. It’s a great way of having David Harrower’s version of a Strindberg play or Tony Kushner’s new translation of Brecht. However good those productions and playwrights are, they are not Strindberg or Brecht, they have a style so the plays are not real translations. They are adaptations, and they make the plays more British. But an adaptation of a play takes it away from the original and this is the current model. Are we stuck here ?

Someome goes even further and asks how to go beyond Europe, how to get to know non-western classics like Syrian classics for example.

In a way, theatre has responded to the issue, ACE responds, NT and NTScotland and Wales have responded by nurturing even more their local cultures and languages.
And even by going inwards, theatre is not more successful in general so if theatres have problems reaching out, how can they produce works that comes from outside too?
Theatre is reputedly expensive and inaccessible despite all the attempts at making it more easy to access and cheaper. Actually the cheaper and easier it got to see foreign theatre, the less curious people have been.

Mark Ravenhill is actually here today and arrives to join the debate at this precise moment. For him it’s about Education. How education can embrace multiple identities and how the world has changed.
The conversation leads to the fact that Theatre does not go as much in schools anymore apart from TIEs to learn languages or address social issues, but those are not purely cultural endeavours. In schools in general, the teaching has ‘gone bad’: we don’t teach other people’s history, we don’t build critical thinking. And there lies a political will to create good citizens, not good critical citizens.

Part of this political agenda is also in the system itself: Education is expensive and not empowering for people from under-privileged backgrounds and minorities. A mostly white British population has access to good schools and their interest are towards their own culture. It’s also echoed in the treatment of equalities in the Uk. Gender and Racial equality are schemed throughout the arts and everyone agrees in those principles. There is no obvious racists in the arts, but we work in a system which functions in a divisive, racist way: since school, the chances of working in theatre are very reduced for less privileged children.

Theatre and teaching therefore reflect a post-colonial structure. Obviously the debate has significantly broadened from the original question but ties in to the following development: If the system is by default a white British elite, who tell a white British narrative, it’s already very hard to imagine it producing a good Asian or Black narrative. And if it’s hard to imagine the system promoting its own existing diversity, how can we imagine that it would produce entirely foreign works.

Although, this is what’s important here: it ought to do so. Because any bridges built to go beyond our borders is crucial at the moment. After Brexit, with the rise of extremists on all sides, despite all ethnicities, what’s important is to create bridges of new stimuli, address the idea of a globalising theatre too. David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic talks about the importance of being able “to be influenced by others”, speaking about international theatre. Even for BAME artists, the importance for them to reach out to their own poets, their own roots and indigenous litteratures and extremely important to elevate the fight for diversity and not summarize it to a race equality question.

The talk ends on a positive note. There are a lot of organizations already going in this direction. Esmee Fairbairn foundations funds a lot of outwards work. The Arts Council just opened an international practice department and the consensus seems to be opening up. There is also some networks like IETM, or The Fence, which are already ten years older and are pan-European structures probably most likely to partner with such endeavours.

Interestingly, when finished, we talked a bit more about the thirties… before the war when people all across Europe were starting to understand the need for Inter-cultural dialogue and then this horrible world war happened and we started from scratch again, and here we are now starting to get it again… when at the same time, the shadows of more world conflicts is looming…