Parlez-Vous Pinter?

10 April 2011

Ciara Hamilton investigates theatre on the other side of the channel and the challenges of bringing English drama to a French-speaking audience

Founded in 1996, Theattre en Anglais is an English theatre company based in Paris which aims to bring some of the biggest English language works to French audiences. Touring all over France with productions ranging from Shakespeare to Steinbeck, the company also hopes to promote ‘language learning through theatre’. The website receives half a million hits per year from French lycees and it is a testament to their success that high schools all over the country now include annual trips to see their productions.

Despite not presuming to teach English to the public, it is definitely the language that takes centre stage. Staying faithful to the text, their recent performance of Animal Farm is one example of the company’s minimalist style. Whilst not subtitled, the story is easily understandable even to someone with limited English through what they call “le charme du théâtre”. Despite the basic set, the complexities of the novel are successfully rendered on stage. This is largely due to the actors’ stage presence and skilled performances which are highly effective in breaking through the language barrier.

So how do they choose which plays to bring to France? Lucille O’Flanagan, directrice artistique, explains: “I tend to choose plays I like and classic works: ones which are little known in the country would not be as successful. We’ve found that the audience needs to have a basic knowledge of the characters in order to fully grasp the play and not feel excluded from the experience. So we try to pick texts with universal themes”.

This year, Lucille hopes to “wake France up to Pinter” with their new production of The Dumb Waiter, due to open in the Sylvia Monfort Theatre in Paris at the end of the month. “I really hope that the French take Pinter to their hearts. It’s a sombre comedy which has a Sartrean Huit Clos feel to it and I think that would appeal to the French”.

What appeals most to the French? Their most popular performances have been The Importance of Being Earnest, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and perhaps more surprisingly, King Lear. How far is the language tailored to meet the needs of the francophone audience? “We didn’t simplify anything; we remained faithful to Shakespeare’s original language”. It is the ‘fine actors’ who carry the play. Do the French struggle with the old-fashioned English? In fact, not as much as one may think. The play received very positive feedback, both in terms of the performance and the ability to understand the language. The play was adapted only by cutting out certain scenes –for example a lot of the subtext with the Earl of Kent. While not a success financially, it was still very popular with its audience and on a professional level it was the most fulfilling to direct. Lucille explains “it was a very challenging mise-en-scene. It was a touching and personal experience which really pushed the boundaries”.

How does the Parisian theatre scene differ to that of London? “The only real difference is in terms of the work. The plays I bring to France differ greatly from my previous work in London”. Before relocating to France, Lucille produced more independent, fringe productions with a large emphasis on new works. In France, the main aim is to really reach out to a new generation and share a passion for great, classic works of English language theatre. And with more and more theatergoers taking note, the company’s Anglo-invasion of French stage seems set to continue.