Grand old lady of Paris comes to the London stage

Next week, the Comedie Francaise will spearhead a French invasion of British theatreland that will last until Christmas. Here we present a portrait in words and pictures of the oldest national theatre company in the world, not seen in London since 1973.

The Comedie Francaise is a very old lady whose main function is to bear witness to the three centuries that made the French theatre's glory. It is commissioned to keep alive, with a duty of excellence, the national repertoire of which Moliere, Racine, Marivaux are the prestigious emblems.

But, like all old ladies, she has her own coquetries and sometimes gives way to audacities more likely to be found in a young girl's character. She puts on Genet, she plays Corneille in the "destroy" style or Offenbach, in the manner of a boulevard play. She can even be eccentric. But there is no harm in her being an object of scandal for real theatre and real life are worth that price. And anyway, the Comedie Francaise always lands on her dignity.

For she is a national property, like the Chateau de Versailles, coq au vin or Napoleon's hat. The French keep a jealous eye on her. Created by Louis XIV, she sailed through the monarchy, the Revolution, the Empire and the Republics without any infringement of her privileged status as a public institution. She imperturbably holds out against History. The most market-oriented economists would not dare try to turn her into a private enterprise.

The Comedie Francaise is actually the only issue on which the French can never disagree.

By appointment to the Sun King

Founded in 1680 by Louis XIV himself, the Comedie Francaise originally held a royal monopoly on all theatre in the French language.

For nearly a century, it performed in a converted jeu de paume (a kind of tennis court) in the rue Fosses-Saint- Germain. It then moved to the Salles des Machines at the Tuileries and in 1789 was granted a new theatre - later renamed the Odeon - near the Luxembourg Gardens on Paris's left bank. After the French Revolution, the company briefly split into two groups: the conservatives and the liberals. The conservatives stayed at the Odeon, while the liberals moved to the rue de Richelieu. In 1799, the company reunited at the latter address, where it operates today.

As the Societe des Comediens-Francais, the company's actors are employed under titles of great formality, and today number 34 societaires and 27 pensionnaires. Past members include such luminaries of the French stage as Rachel, Sarah Bernhardt, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Madeleine Renaud .

While the Comedie Francaise is best known for its rich productions of the classical French repertoire, its annexation of the Theatre du Vieux- Colombier and addition of a Studio Theatre have led to a new flexibility in mixing old and new across the three venues.

For the company's first visit to London in over 20 years, however, and to launch the 12-week French Theatre season, Jean-Pierre Miquel, the Comedie's artistic director, has chosen to present a true classic of the Gallic theatre - Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's 27th play, and dramatic swansong, Les Fausses Confidences (1737). A hard-hitting, even scandalous, attack on class and character, it's a play whose central theme can be summed up in a single word: money.

The Comedie Francaise bring Marivaux's comedy Les Fausses Confidences to at the Royal National Theatre, London, for a five-day season, starting next Tuesday. The production, at the Lyttelton Theatre, will be one of the highlights of a season of French theatre that runs at various venues in London and Stratford-upon Avon until December, showcasing the work of venerable modernist figures such as Marguerite Duras and Samuel Beckett as well as some of the young Turks of the French contemporary stage.

Laurie Lewis was given exclusive backstage access to the Comedie Francaise before they left their base in Paris. Coraly Zohanero (above) awaits her cue in Les Fausses Confidences, while Catherine Samie (left) watches the stage action on the green room television while waiting to go on.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

    £30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor