French go wild for latest British export: simulated sex and a sense of danger

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Tim, a dying Aids patient, was being masturbated on stage by Victor, the Russian rent-boy who had, inadvertently, fallen in love with him...

The audience for the French premiÿre of Mark Ravenhill's black, funny and moving view of Cool Britannia, in the play Some Explicit Polaroids, held its collective breath. Three young French women in the row in front of me giggled helplessly.

Max Stafford Clark, director of the West End and touring production of Polaroids, had occupied a strategic position to observe the Parisian audience's reaction to this and other in-your-face scenes. "They looked a bit startled at times," he said later. "There was a time when the French shocked us. Now it seems that we rather shock them."

Shock but no outrage. The superb actors of the original West End cast taking part in Londres sur Scÿne, - the first extended Paris season of contemporary British theatre - had no sense of having offended anyone. There was ecstatic applause at the end. The audience, probably two-thirds French, one-third English-speaking expatriates, demanded a third curtain call.

"We don't get that in Sheffield or Leeds," said Tricia Kelly, who plays Helen, a one-time violent revolutionary turned Blairish town councillor. "Two curtain calls is usually your lot, however well it's gone down."

The festival of six plays, which ends next week and is organised by the British Council and the city of Paris, has been a resounding success. Three plays - Steven Berkoff's own revival of East, the Kaos Theatre version of The Importance of Being Earnest and Chris O'Connell's Car - have been virtual sell-outs.

About 70 per cent of the total audiences have been French. They have been helped through the slang-littered dialogue by the use of surtitles, translations displayed on a digital screen above the stage.

Paris has a lively theatrical life of its own. The British season is the return leg of a very successful French season in London in 1998. Paris also has a thriving resident, professional and fringe Englishlanguage theatre. But this is the first full programme of contemporary London productions to cross the Channel.

Jean Gautier, the Paris town hall's director of cultural affairs, said: "Parisian theatre focuses mostly on a few star directors. London theatre is much more about the power of writing and acting. That's why we were so keen to have this season, to show Parisian audiences something different. We intend to continue with plays from other countries."

Have French audiences been shocked by the content of the London plays? The bad language, street violence and simulated sex in East, for instance? (All these things can be found in contemporary French films but not on the mainstream stage). "Shocked, no, I don't think so," said Mr Gautier. "A little startled at first maybe. When I went to East, I was reminded of Shakespeare and of François Rabelais [15th-century French satirist]. There is nothing here you can't find in your classic literature and our own." French audiences have been impressed by the sometimes brutal, physical presence of the modern British plays, he said. John Tod, the director of the British Council in Paris, said: "I was told by a French graduate student researching the French stage that plays with a strong physical content are dead in France. I think that is one of the reasons why this series has gone down so well. Car, which shows four young men stealing a car and the affect it has on their lives, seemed to stun the audience."

On questionnaires filled in by the theatre-goers, individual comments have included: "It is daring and funny; let's have more of this English stuff", "Continuez et revenez!" and "Genial!" But one couple abandoned the first night of East at the interval, the man muttering: "There's only so many English swear-words I want to hear in one night."

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