John Lichfield: The French learn to love Shakespeare

Paris Notebook: The theatre scene across the Channel has become a kind of Paris-upon-Avon
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Shakespeare ou pas Shakespeare? Telle est la question. The French are replying with a resounding "oui". The theatre scene across the Channel has become a kind of Paris-upon-Avon or Shakespeare-sur-Seine. There are, at present, more of his plays on the stage in the greater Paris area – six, to be exact – than by the most popular of classical French playwrights, Molière.

But why? The cross-Channel boom in the bard is not entirely new. For 200 years, it is true, the French turned their noses up at Shakespeare as a uncouth ignoramus who trampled on the rules of classical drama. Shakespeare finally became popular in France In the 19th century in re-worked versions, which removed some of the imperfections such as jokes in tragedies and – horror of horrors – deaths on stage. It is only in the past 50 years that Shakespeare, in all his splendour and oddity, has been shown in French.

At present, in greater Paris, you can watch Othello at the restored Odéon in the Sixth Arrondissement, one of the most beautiful theatres in the world. You can see A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Ateliers Berthier in the 17th Arrondissement. You can see Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet in small theatres in the Sixth and Ninth. Just outside Paris proper, you can see a wonderful production of Coriolanus in Nanterre and Measure For Measure at Bobigny.

Martine Silber is the former theatre critic of Le Monde newspaper who now writes an excellent theatre blog ( marsupilamima@blogspot.com ). "Shakespeare is popular with school groups, which mean that the seats sell," she said. "And French audiences love Shakespeare precisely because he defies all the rules that they are used to in French classical drama."

Shakespeare's belated popularity has also spawned a new wave of excellent French translations. Does that make Shakespeare more accessible to 21st-century French audiences than to British ones? Exactly this claim was made by the director of a much-acclaimed Hamlet in Paris a few years ago. His name was Peter Brook, one of the greatest of British Shakespeareans.

Knavery's plain face

Since the handsome and eloquent Barack Obama would make a perfect Othello, it occurred to me to try to cast the play from a repertory company of world leaders and their wives. Nicolas Sarkozy, right – intelligent, energetic, devious, foul-mouthed – would make a great Iago. But where on earth can we find a beautiful, enigmatic, tall, languid and preferably Italian-born Desdemona?

Comments