French flock to theatre in English

Author: John Litchfield

To this day, Mr Woirin, 78, prefers the English style of acting – more direct, more natural, more humorous, he says – to the French style, which is more declamatory and formal. Now he finds, to his delight, that he can watch English theatre without moving more than a couple of miles from his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, in the western suburbs of Paris.

Mr Woirin was talking as he emerged, with his wife, from a production of Art, a French play written by Yasmina Reza, which has been an enormous success all over the world in the last four years. The play is in production until January, in its English translation by Christopher Hampton, in a theatre on the Boulevard des Batignolles in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.

A French play being performed in Paris in English? This alone bears witness to the growing success of English-language theatre in the French capital.

It is not a completely new phenomenon. There have been plays in English in Paris for decades: short runs of Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde by visiting companies; experimental plays in tiny, fringe theatres; educational performances for schools and students.

What is new is that the better-known commercial theatres are putting on English-language productions because they find that they can make money out of them; that the plays runs for much longer (three months is planned for Art); and that there are now five professional English-language theatre companies performing in Paris.

What is also new is that the English-language theatre is attracting French audiences. The backbone of support for plays in English remains the large Parisian community of expatriate English-speakers. But theatre managements report that English-language theatre is now increasingly popular with French people.

“I would say our audiences for English plays is half French, half English- speakers,” said Alain Julien, commercial director of the Petit-Hebertot theatre, which is performing Art as part of a successful, permanent early- evening run of plays in English. “Many of the French are young people who are studying English. But there are also many middle-aged and older people. I think, partly, it reflects the growing acceptance in France of the importance of knowing English. But also the fact that Eurostar has introduced many more French people to English theatre.”

Mr Julien reports a curious and unexplained social phenomenon. French theatre-goers, he says, are “impossible people, very demanding, very rude”. English-speaking theatre-goers are a “joy to work with by comparison, much calmer, more patient”. The odd thing is, he says, that the French audiences for English-language plays are not like the normal, brutal French audiences; they are more like English audiences. “I can’t explain why this should be, but it is an observable fact.”

From June to September, the Petit-Hebertot put on a production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, in French for the first half of the week, and in English on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The English version was so successful that it is being extended until December, on Sundays and Mondays only.

In September, the Anglo-French Theatre Project’s As You Like It – which had previously toured successfully to universities – was presented in a commercial Parisian theatre, the Bouffon, in the 19th arrondissement. “By the end of the week, we were turning people away,” said Christine Hooper, one of the organiser- performers.

Art is performed by the Dear Conjunction Theatre Company, a group of French-based English and American professional actors, who have put on 14 productions in Paris in the last seven years. One of its founding members, Patricia Kessler, who directed Art, said the commercial demand and audience for professional English language theatre was growing rapidly. “There has been a shift in French attitudes. More can speak English, sure. But they are also have less inhibition about admitting it.”

Putting on a French play in English in France led her, by accident, to an interesting comparative study of English and French theatrical styles. Art is the story of three middle-aged friends who quarrel over the merits of an expensive painting, which is, in fact, just a blank, white canvas. On the London stage, said Ms Kessler, the play was treated “almost as a sit-com, played almost exclusively for laughs”. On the Paris stage, it was treated as a very serious examination (with a few jokes) of the themes of art and male friendship and identity in the modern world.

Her production is an attempt to blend both, as she believes the playwright intended. It is an enormous success, with three impressive actors, all French-based. One is a Briton, Les Clack, the leader of the Dear Conjunction company, and two are Americans, Christian Erickson and William Doherty. Doherty’s role is played on some nights by another Briton, Paul Bandey.

Natasha Edwards, editor of the Paris branch of Time Out – an English- language insert in the listings magazine Pariscope – says the increased professionalism of the English-language theatre in the French capital is another reason for its growing popularity. “It used to be that you would go along expecting something like a school play or amateur theatricals, but now you see productions which are up to the highest professional standards.”


Art by Yasmina Reza, Theatre Petit-Hebertot, 6 October to 2 January.

The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter, Theatre Petit-Hebertot, 18 October to 21 December (Sun and Mon only).

Halloween Spectacular by Anglo-French Theatre Project at WH Smith, Rue de Rivoli, 31 October.

Speed the Plow by David Mamet, Theatre de Nesle, 17 November to 12 December.

Wuthering Heights, adapted by Andrew Wilson, Theatre de Menilmontant, 26 and 30 November, 1 December.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted by Andrew Wilson, Theatre de Menilmontant, 8, 9, 15, 16 February.

Short plays by Samuel Beckett, Petit-Hebertot, February.

No professional French-language productions are planned for the immediate future in London.

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