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.

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