Arts & Books: Theatre: Aaah, the wit of les anglais

ON THURSDAY night, history was made at the Comedie Francaise, the bastion of French theatre. Tom Stoppard became the first non- Francophone foreign playwright to have his work performed at the Parisian theatre whilst still alive. Arcadia, in its French translation, will run until February.

Although for many years French audiences have enjoyed productions of foreign playwrights' works - Shakespeare, Ibsen, Brecht - they have been deprived of seeing plays of contemporary foreign writers. A change in the theatre statutes in 1995 gave the theatre the possibility to broaden its repertoire.

The man behind Arcadia's admission to the higher echelons of French theatre is Mr Jean-Pierre Miquel, the theatre's Administrateur (Director). Appointed by the French government in 1993, he proposed Stoppard's play to the board in 1996.

So why choose Stoppard for the French public? Mr Miquel is not at a loss for words: "Tom Stoppard is without doubt one of the great authors of today. The diversity of his work, his mastery of dramatic techniques, the variety and originality of his subjects, and his sense of humour allow him to join the ranks of the most inventive and sparkling writers of contemporary theatre."

Stoppard's play, set in Sidley Park, a Derbyshire manor house, switches between 1809 and the present day. The 19th- century lady of the manor not only has her gardener's outrageous landscaping plans to contend with, but also a series of interwoven love affairs taking place in the house.

And so 190 years later, two academics, Bernard Nightingale and Anna Jarvis, are trying to unravel the mysteries of the previous century's events. He is trying to find the answer to Lord Byron's unexplained disappearance, convinced the answer lies in Sidley Park. She is determined to study the identity of the hermit who lodged in the grounds.

In switching between the two eras, Stoppard's play explores the relationship between the past and the present, whilst opening up interesting discussions between the characters about Classicism, Romanticism, philosophy, physics, poetry and mathematics.

How well did it cross the Channel? It translated very well, though much of the script's linguistic witticisms seemed to be overshadowed by the visual slapstick humour incorporated by the play's director, Phillipe Adrien.

Furthermore, some of the French actors tended to offer up a rather melodramatic interpretation of their characters, which at times were inappropriate to the subtler nuances of the play.

The audience's reaction at the end was mixed. Some spectators emerged in a daze, complaining of an over-complicated plot, with tenuous links between the two time frames. Others were more enthusiastic, believing the play to have been entertaining and clever.

Perhaps the words of one of the characters, Valentin, are most appropriate: "Who wrote what and when and why ... is irrelevant ... what counts is ... the knowledge." Or in this case, the play.