France goes on the cultural offensive

Britain to host more than 20 cutting-edge showsfrom best Gallic artists
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For years, the French have been ardent opponents of Britain's bland food, sense of style and any English language spoken on their shores. Now, in a move that some might regard as an attempt to teach their cross-channel neighbours a lesson or two in high culture, French authorities have funded the first ever British season devoted to showcasing contemporary Gallic theatre. The French avant-garde is coming to Britain.

While French cinema and classic stage plays by Molière and Racine have become a mainstay of British culture, two years ago the French embassy noticed an absence of cutting-edge French theatre in British venues.

So began the search for the "finest" Gallic productions, such as shows inspired by "extreme festivals" in Montpelier and experimental works from the legendary annual theatrefest at Avignon, to be staged in London and further afield. Artistic directors from the Young Vic, the Barbican Centre and Sadler's Wells have taken trips across the Channel to select some of their favourites to bring back home.

After ploughing £200,000 into the administration costs alone, the French have created a programme of more than 20 theatrical shows which will be staged in 21 venues across the country, from the Barbican in central London to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.

The (British) Arts Council has contributed £45,000 to the scheme, with a European grant providing another £45,000. The cost of bringing over entire casts of productions and translating French texts into English is estimated to exceed £1m.

The six-month initiative, "Paris Calling", billed as a Franco-British Season of Performing Arts, follows on from a visual arts season organised by the French embassy in 2006. Companies will tour to cities including Derby, Nottingham, Newcastle and Leicester as well as staging shows in London.

Unsurprisingly, the experimental nature of some of the 21 plays, dance productions and circus performances may leave some audiences challenged. The programme includes new works that have never been staged in the UK and whose main purpose is to "push the boundaries of language and culture".

One performance by the French choreographer, Jerome Bel, includes no dance, but is a form of "conceptual dance" in which he delivers a lecture on 27 dance performances. Another consists of the dancer, Xavier Le Roy, miming the movements of Simon Rattle conducting Stravinsky.

There will be a French juggling ensemble at the Southbank Centre and circus artists at the ICA, Juliette Binoche will perform with Akram Khan in the show In-I and in a lecture at Tate Modern Le Roy will talk about his former career as a molecular biologist.

Romeo Castellucci's revisionist performance Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, based on Dante's epic The Divine Comedy, will be shown at the Barbican, and Mohamed Kacimi's play, Holy Land, about the occupied territories, will be performed at the National Theatre.

Alistair Spalding, chief executive of Sadler's Wells, said he would love to see British productions being staged in France on a similar scale, but questioned the British Government's willingness to fund it. "I think the French embassy should be applauded for putting money behind this season," he said. "I can't imagine Gordon Brown deciding on such a diplomatic plan."

Most French productions to be staged in Britain willbe performed in French but be translated into English, except a Racine play at the Barbican, with subtitles running alongside.

Laurence Auer, the cultural counsellor at the French embassy, called the initiative "the start of a mutual exchange".