John Lichfield: A reminder that theatre is booming over here

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All the world's a stage. British theatre, from William Shakespeare to Howard Barker, is packing in audiences across the Channel. The ambitious "Paris Calling" season is a timely reminder to Britons that France has a thriving theatre scene of its own.

If anything, the programme is rather skewed towards circus, dance and music and fails to do complete justice to the liveliness of French theatre. The language barrier, one suspects, has a great deal to do with that. Mime, juggling, music and dance cross the Channel more easily than contemporary, or even classical, French drama.

Still, there is enough here to show how rich and inventive the French stage has become, even if, like with many things in France, there is a semi-permanent drama about the quality and nature of French drama.

The Swiss theatre director, Luc Bondy, provoked anger last month when he complained that drama was becoming "secondary, even tertiary" on the French stage, which was being swamped by musical or dance-led productions (and the "Paris Calling" season might somewhat confirm his suspicions).

M. Bondy also complains that Paris theatre remains too divided between subsidised, culturally correct and relatively cheap "public" theatre and expensive private, "boulevard" theatre, which is often wrongly dismissed as low-brow and low-grade. In London, he says, well-known actors and directors migrate between the two. In Paris, they are like "dogs barking at one another".

There is truth in this criticism but it fails to take account of the boom of all kinds of theatre, public and private, in the past four decades. In 1968, Paris had 60 theatres offering about 70 plays a week. It now has 130 theatres, or stages, offering up to 450 plays a week. There has also been a boom in "micro-theatre", with auditoriums as small as 15 seats in the trendy east of the city. Many of these offerings defy the old cultural barrier between "subsidised" and "private". They are fundamentally independent but soak up city and state subsidies whenever they can.