In one of the oldest parts of Moscow, to the east of Red Square, there's a stocky white building called the English Court. It was restored in honour of the Queen's state visit to Russia in 1994 and it boasts (if that's the right word) a framed photograph of Her Majesty signing the visitors' book. Ivan the Terrible, who had unavailing marital designs on Elizabeth I, donated the house as a kind of embassy for the English traders who began commerce with Russia in 1553.
A fortnight ago, I visited this place in the company of a young Moscow dramatist, Alexander Rodionov, and confronted by one of the rooms, we both burst out laughing. In opposite corners, there's an exhibition of relics and facsimiles of the wares that the two countries initially exchanged. Sixteenth-century England does not come out of this comparison smelling of roses. In the Russian corner, the items are all pacific and nurturing (honey, furs, rope, caviar and mica) while the English corner is a sheer blast of belligerence, bristling with muskets, pikes and gunpowder.
My Moscow trip comes as a direct result of a recent, more constructive British intervention in Russian cultural life. We in England are just about to reap the rewards, in the shape of a showcase at the Royal Court of the highly impressive work that has emerged from the interchange. The season is to include a full promenade production(with an English director and cast) of Plasticine, a clear-eyed and bitterly comic look at provincial life in Russia today from the hot young playwright Vassily Sigarev, and verbatim-project pieces from two fresh Siberian companies, which will plunge us into the experiences of workers in a mining commune, into the revealing correspondence between Russian conscripts sent to Chechnya and their mothers and lovers back home, and into the lives of a poverty- stricken fishing community adrift on an ice floe.
As I learn quickly, Moscow is on the move in many senses. Even the street names are refusing to stay put. My first meeting is scheduled to take place at a trendy new night-spot called Klon (aka Clone). But the British Council's Russian driver drops me off outside a different establishment altogether, where there's a panic- inducing paucity of people who can understand a word I utter. I've been in a mad rush because of a flight delay, so I am without roubles or a map (or any Russian), and the one girl who speaks a tiny amount of English denies that this is even the street I'm expecting (Pushkinskaya) and directs me to a parallel road.
I find out later that she both is and isn't right. The names of the streets in the area are in the process of changing and migrating. It's only because Oskolkova, the drama and dance manager at the British Council in Moscow, has asked for a description of me that I'm not still lost. She hails me from another door and introduces me to Elena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov, who run the pioneering new-writing project. The following night, this pair are going to launch a venue that would have been inconceivable a couple of years ago: a centre for contemporary playwriting, right in the centre of the city, called Theatr.doc.
Klon is achingly hip and minimalist. Tatyana notices me frowning in puzzlement at the www.youneverknow.ru logo etched out in large, stone letters over the dining area. Having spent her life in international relations, Tatyana has a broad, humane culture and learned wit. She teases me that the logo is an allusion to the French fashion designer Chanel, who even slept in full make-up on the grounds that "you never know" when you will meet your man and so should always look your best. I relax and think to myself: I'm going to enjoy this trip.
It's enjoyable and inspiring to meet a gifted generation of new twentysomething playwrights, whose sense of their own creativity was legitimised by an intervention from a happy hook-up between the British Council and the Royal Court's international department. …