Illustration: Robin Cowcher.
JUST at the moment, Melbourne's Arts Centre has a policy of importing shows from overseas. Come the new year, we are going to see War Horse - Britain's National Theatre reconstructing that heart-warming story of a boy and a horse in the killing fields of World War I - which has awed the world with the wonder of its gigantic puppetry.
I suppose that's a good thing, but it does make you wonder if the Arts Centre and the Melbourne Festival might not have a more active role in importing first-rate productions of classic and mainstream drama. The Schaubü¨hne of Berlin's production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People at the recent Melbourne Festival was a fine thing, though clearly, the reason for importing it depended on director Thomas Ostermeier's reputation as a postmodern deconstructionist.
The last Sydney Festival, on the other hand, included Declan Donnellan's production for Cheek by Jowl of John Ford's late-Renaissance shocker 'Tis A Pity She's a Whore (which I'm told made the Malthouse's production look like a juvenile doodle). The Perth Festival had Ed Hall doing his all male productions of Henry V and The Winter's Tale. But Melbourne somehow seems above this sort of thing.
A year ago, the Old Vic production of Richard III with Kevin Spacey full of gangster-like danger in the title role and a slashingly brilliant production by Sam Mendes came to Sydney but not Melbourne. In 2009, Mendes' productions of The Winter's Tale and The Cherry Orchard with Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack and Ethan Hawke went to Auckland on their way to New York but not to Melbourne.
It is hard to see why. The argument that we do these things very well on our own simply cannot be sustained. Sometimes - let's say with Simon Phillips' production of a contemporary dramatic hit like August: Osage County - that might be true, but I don't think that his Shakespeare productions with Ewan Leslie, first as Richard III and then as Hamlet, which were certainly hits, will bear comparison with the highest international standard, and even if they did we would need the comparison.
It has been three years since Ian McKellen toured this country in Waiting for Godot and five since his Royal Shakespeare Company tour under Trevor Nunn's direction of King Lear and playing the uncle in Chekhov's The Seagull to Frances Barber's Arkadina and Romola Garai's Nina.
Touring productions like these burn more of a hole in theatregoer's memory than some of our postmodern sophisticates like to pretend.
After all, the big events in the Australian theatre calendar - Cate Blanchett as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King - are precisely the kind of thing that could be seen internationally (and in these two cases were).
Is it any surprise that Melbourne audiences have a craving to see first-rate acting in first-rate productions?
Sometimes, of course, they will get this nationally and locally. The Neil Armfield production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll from Belvoir, with that staggering vignette from Robyn Nevin, was an example. So was Nadia Tass' production of The Aliens last year for Red Stitch and, indeed, Red Stitch has a consistent sense of what theatre can do. Kat Stewart in Strindberg's Creditors, the direction of Gary Abrahams, the acting of Dion Mills - these are great mainstream assets more theatregoers should be aware of.
But we do need, in the most obvious way, the work from the big international stages, not least from Britain. And we particularly need the traditional face of this, not just Einstein on the Beach.
It is the absence of the highest level of ''straight'' traditional theatre that makes people flock to the NT Live broadcasts that are shown in cinemas.
In this respect it is terrific that Brett Sheehy, in his first season as Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director, is importing the British National Theatre's production of One Man, Two Guvnors that has been a runaway hit. But it would be nice if we didn't confine ourselves to the chocolate boxes such as War Horse and Two Guvnors. Think of the number of people who would have killed to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman in the recent New York production directed by Mike Nichols. It is good that Jill Smith of the Geelong Performing Arts Centre brought down Colin Friels in Simon Stone's Sydney Salesman, but Hoffman and Nichols would have been something else. Importation is a rich, unploughed field and you would think the Australian dollar would make it attractive to international companies if we had the imagination to encourage it.
It is also worth remembering that nothing is healthier for the theatre we produce ourselves than to see the world's best practice. It is that little bit harder to think you are a genius and an Arthur Miller masterpiece is your plaything if you see Mike Nichols and Phillip Seymour Hoffman doing it classically and with reverence as it is written.
So let's bring the world here. And let's not trick ourselves that an eclectic commitment to ''the arts'' is a substitute for the best international theatre.