More than a decade ago, the statue of Lenin was removed from Republic Square, the heart of the city of Yerevan. Now the square is dominated by a massive water feature. This eye-catching, if rather kitsch, landmark in the new capitalist Armenia spits out great plumes of water in time with the blasts of popular classical music booming out of concealed speakers. The Armenian people have moved on from their Soviet past. The new cafe society of young couples parading in their Italian clothes is more reminiscent of Milan than Minsk. But there is one legacy of the Soviet past that Yerevan has held on to. The city, with more than 1 million inhabitants, has a tremendous appetite for theatre: there are no fewer than 12 working companies, and an audience that's enthusiastic for all kinds of performance. During the Soviet era, the challenge for Moscow was to balance the introduction of Russian ideas and language with a respect for local culture. Drama was an excellent tool: both Russian and Armenian theatre was supported and promoted by the Soviet state. And the Armenians have preserved this theatrical legacy.
I'm in Yerevan to direct a translation of one of my Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat plays, a 20-minute work called Paradise Lost. I have an impressive Armenian cast. Part of the Soviet legacy is the high standard of actor training. The quality of the acting is astonishing. So, too, is the loyalty countries such as Slovenia, Georgia and Lithuania still show to a Russian idea of theatre: large ensemble companies, actors working together for a lifetime, lengthy rehearsal periods, visionary directors. While all around them everything is being privatised, actors and audiences have held on to a form of theatre that, by the logic of market forces, should have disappeared long ago.
There is a barrier for me to cross: I don't speak any Russian or Armenian, and the cast doesn't have any English. I've been given an interpreter, an enthusiastic - but not exactly fluent - English speaker. And so rehearsals have taken an unusual course. After the briefest of introductions, in which I tried to summarise the play in a single sentence and gave a few key notes for each character, we hit the stage, slowly working through a couple of pages a day. I've found myself standing at the footlights, beating out the tempos for different sections with a book, holding my hand up to indicate the length of pauses, tapping my head to indicate changes of thought or intentions for the characters. I've focused on giving the actors concrete physical moments to play. I've even demonstrated actions - something many British actors would consider an insult to their craft.
The results occasionally look like the kind of coarse acting you can find anywhere in the world. But at other times, this commitment to the physical has produced exciting results that seem more like the theatre I've seen in mainland Europe than the type of work you usually see on British stages.
Some blimpish Brits still insist that theatre from other countries is more physical and visual than ours because they don't have our language, which - so the argument goes - is the richest in the world. I don't buy this. Surely Goethe, Molière and Chekhov couldn't have been inspired to produce the world's greatest plays in impoverished languages? But it is true that British audiences are unusually attuned to the nuances of language: they can smell a hint of irony quicker than theatre-goers anywhere else.
This ear for language is surely the greatest strength, but also the greatest weakness, of the British stage. Perhaps we should think a little less about the words. Here in Armenia, I'm learning to unlock the meaning of a play without understanding a word the actors are saying. It's a fascinating lesson.