A year ago Steven Downs, head of theatre studies at Shelley High School near Huddersfield, was in Hungary with a small party of students, looking for a suitable subject from Hungarian history or folklore to turn into a play.
In the Buda art gallery in Budapest he came across a striking picture that is almost a national shrine to Hungarians. It shows the women of Eger, a city in north central Hungary, battling against invading Turkish soldiers during the siege of their town in 1552; their menfolk were fighting but were heavily outnumbered. The Turks eventually mutinied and scurried back to their homes.
The Hungarian trip was a scouting mission in preparation for an exchange to take place this year, an exchange that would be strengthened by sharing drama productions. Steven Downs and colleague Julie Root thought the story of the women of Eger, and the part they played in defending their town, would be just the thing. The play had to be suitable for their Year 12 students to perform, in both England and Hungary, with some Hungarian students joining the cast in Hungary.
The exchange, they believed, needed a focal point, a shared activity which would help the young people to bond and generate long-lasting memories. Their Hungarian contacts agreed.
Shelley High School found itself twinned with the RH Csoport young people's group at the Kolibri Theatre in Budapest as part of the Branching Out scheme initiated by London's Royal National Theatre. Branching Out has twinned many British schools with an interest in drama with schools and youth groups in Eastern Europe. Funding for the English school's trip to Hungary came from Lingua, which is part of Socrates, the European Union's action programme for educational co-operation. It was the first Lingua-financed visit to Hungary.
The RH Csoport group, whose members are drawn from 10 schools, meets once a week. Acting is a hobby for most of the group, although some of its members are studying performing arts at secondary school.
Shelley's drama department has an enviable track record. For many years its productions have been performed at the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough, where they have often been the only comprehensive competing against college and university groups. The quality of their work is extremely high and the productions are original, often with a specially-written music score. Steven Downs usually hits on a suitable subject during the summer break and writes a script, which is then refined in school workshops.
The play inspired by the painting in Budapest was given the title Egri Nok, which is Hungarian for "the women of Eger". The dialogue was in English, although the play included nine songs in Hungarian. The English pupils received 20 hours of free instruction in Hungarian as part of the funding agreement with Lingua.
They admit they found it difficult. The language has 14 vowel sounds, which leads to awkward, but sometimes hilarious, ambiguities. The shades of expression, they say, are similarly confusing.
The RH Csoport group sent a scouting mission of their own to Huddersfield last year to find suitable material for a play to adapt from English folklore. They chose to develop a drama with a Robin Hood theme, after finding so many Robin Hood tourist spots in the area, including a village named Robin Hood not far from Shelley school.
In the spring, the Hungarians arrived with their production of Robin Hood, rehearsed it with some of the Shelley students in certain roles, and performed the play at Shelley and at schools around Scarborough, in between watching the student drama festival. Shelley's theatre studies students always spend a week at the festival as part of their course.
During the early rehearsals of Robin Hood, the English students tried out Hungarian words and phrases on their Hungarian friends. The shared purpose brought a sense of urgency to their communication. The production itself was colourful and clear and included shadow effects, dancing and a rather special puppet show, complete with a Reeves and Mortimer-style pan fight from 16-year-old Bal zs Lippai, playing Richard the Lionheart. He has a deserved reputation back home, where he is in demand for festival appearances.
The students from Shelley school then went to Hungary to perform their play. Rhythmic clapping, a sure sign of success with Hungarian audiences, greeted each of their four performances. "The audiences were surprised by the way I played Dobo, the commander of the fortress," says Andrew Galthwaite. "I made him like a typical British lieutenant, which was not at all the image they had grown up with. They enjoyed it."
Being with host families, and therefore away from their English friends, the English students found their Hungarian improved rapidly. Difficult Hungarian words were soon tumbling from English tongues. "They often don't have a separate word for things - they just add bits on," says Steven Hepplestone. "The crux of the language is word endings and there are no Anglo-Saxon influences to help. Mr Downs asked someone if he was gay, but he hadn't meant to!" Steven Downs believes his plan to help the group bond was a success. "A drama group is very closeknit because you work so intensely. Everybody had a partner from the other country and it was an ensemble piece, which welded them together much more than endless sightseeing. In fact, the sightseeing was better because we had far less time for it. We shall build on this link, it's too good to let slip."
The Shelley students saw sharp contrasts in living standards between the two countries during their free time in Budapest - shabby facilities in the schools, cramped living conditions and basic food such as pig's knuckles and cow's liver. The frequency of public transport, however, was much praised, as was the architecture, despite an unpleasant-looking westernised area with a Burger King and a Tesco.
"I hope we didn't look as if we were showing off, but we ate out most of the time and they just brought sandwiches from home," says Jessica Eastwood. "Burger King was amazingly cheap, or so we thought, but it was still too expensive for most of them. They must have made some sacrifices to find the money to come to England."
The students agree that the exchange has given them tremendous insight and the confidence to try other locations - and not just countries in western Europe - if the opportunity comes their way. "It's given me a taste for other countries," says Gina Battye. "You get a different view of a country when you're staying with families, and you try out the language more when you're alone with the families. We'd all go back if we had the chance."
For advice on drama exchanges, contact the Royal National Theatre's education department, tel: 0171 452 3333. For Lingua funding, contact the Central Bureau for Educational visits and Exchanges, tel: 0171 389 4750