French for beginners

France had a national theatre long before the Revolution. It's still going strong - and now it's coming here.
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The French government and a host of public and private sponsors are presenting a French Theatre Season in England this autumn. It's a lovely idea, but ... Why go? You could of course stay at home. You could recreate Paris in your living room with a tape of Jean-Louis Barrault, a photo of Camus, an edition of Anouilh and a garlic press. But here are 10 thoughts to tickle the theatre-goer lurking in every "pantouflard" (couch potato).

1The number one reason to go to the season has to be the chance to see the Comedie-Francaise - the most prestigious of France's five "National" Theatres - without having to queue or getting caught up in the complicated advanced booking system. The Comedie-Francaise hasn't been seen in London since 1973. The company - "la troupe" - was founded in 1680. Its role now? Essentially to preserve the repertoire and the theatrical know-how (including how to lace a corset). The company is a living history of the stage. But the job of artistic director is no sinecure. There have been six since 1979. Three were sacked and two died. Bonne sante Jean-Pierre Miquel.

2 Why is the Comedie-Francaise not serving Moliere, the author who inspired the foundation of the company? Why bring us Marivaux and Les Fausses Confidences? Marivaux is probably now the most popular "classical" author in France. Although there's not much classical about him. Moliere wrote comedy of eternal types in the 17th century, a period of political stability. Marivaux wrote plays of ambiguity and emotional danger in in the 18th century, a period of political and social instability. "Holdup chez la veuve" (Robbery at the widow's) is how the critic Bernard Dort described Les Fausses Confidences. More suitable for 1997?

3 French theatre is international. Peter Brook - whose Centre International de Recherches Theatrales has been based in the exquisite bare bones of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord since 1970 - is the best representative of France's open cultural frontiers. But what is Peter Brook - who directs Oh les beaux jours at the Riverside Studios - going to do with Samuel Beckett? Beckett will Brook no tampering with his text and stage instructions. He said no to director Gildas Bourdet's pink Endgame in the Eighties at the Comedie-Francaise. How will Brook inhabit the straitjacket of the text?

4 Another novelty of the season. We're used to seeing Beckett performed in English. But how does he sound in French? Is it the same text? Is he the same man? Is Winnie the same woman? What's the difference between the English Beckett and the French Beckett?

5 French theatre has been dominated by directors since the 1970s. There are several on show here. Brook; the visionary American director Robert Wilson, who directs a haunting Duras text, La Maladie de la Mort, at Sadler's Wells; and Stanislas Nordey, director of the Marivaux La Dispute, staged with a new play written by Didier-Georges Gabily (who died young last year), Contention. Nordey is one of a new breed of young French directors - the Rimbauds of the 1990s?

6 There are a lot of great actors in this season. Two examples among many: Michel Piccoli - the man in the trilby on the bed with Bardot at the beginning of Godard's Le Mepris - and the sublime Catherine Samie - "la doyenne" (ie longest-serving actress) of the Comedie-Francaise.

7 There is a lot of new writing in French theatre - again on display in the festival: Vinaver, Anne, Koltes, Durringer, Pellet, Gabily. What does this uncompromising, extremely French writing sound like - coming from a country where there is no possibility of a West End transfer? Brecht dreamt of a theatre "for the scientific production of scandal". Maybe this is it? The arrogance is certainly there. La Dispute by Marivaux is presented as a mere preface to its contemporary sequel, Contention, by Gabily.

8 French theatre is generously subsidised by the Ministry of Culture. Gabily said that French theatre has only managed to survive in its most noble and dangerous form because it is protected from market forces. Is this an ivory tower or a vision of a new frontier? And why are we British embarrassed by the word "culture"? Remember Camus: "All that degrades culture simply shortens the path which leads to servitude."

9 What do the French know about British writers? Bennett was a success with Talking Heads. Gregory Motton is virtually unknown here but made a name for himself in France. Frayn didn't work too well. Hare (Skylight) and Stoppard (Arcadia) are soon to be played in Paris. Cultural marriages used to be possible - there are echoes of Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem (1707) in Les Fausses Confidences (1737). Maybe this season will be a matchmaker.

10 Bernard-Marie Koltes died at the end of the Eighties. At least two of his plays are now recognised as modern classics: Roberto Zucco - being performed in English at Stratford - and Dans la solitude des champs de coton. The first (now famous) words of the dealer to the client in this second play answer the question: why go to the French Theatre Season? "Si vous marchez dehors, a cette heure et en ce lieu, c'est que vous desirez quelque chose que vous n'avez pas, et cette chose, moi, je peux vous la fournir." ("If you're out walking, at this time and in this place, it's because you want something you haven't got, and that something, I can provide."

So just do it. Don't give in to the Godot syndrome:

Alors, on y va?

Allons-y.

(Ils ne bougent pas.)

Bonne soiree.

! Michael Sadler is Literary Consultant to the French Theatre Season, which opens on Tues with the Comedie-Francaise's production of 'Les Fausses

Confidences' (Lyttelton, SE1, 0171 928 2252, to Sat). The season runs until 20 December at various venues in London and Stratford. For further information and to book tickets, ring First Call (0171 420 0070).

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