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Vaut le détour

A journey around Paris's theatrical fringe.

Ah, Paris! The city where the size of your dog is inversely proportionate to the size of your purse. Le Marais, (or "swamp") where I dipped in my sample jar to check out the state of fringe theatre, is very much a district of the small dog. And yet, its medieval streets have a strong tradition of outsider status -- and were hence overlooked by the zealous boulevard builders -- first as a Jewish ghetto, and now as a thriving gay community. And maybe this edginess explains the dozen or so of small, well-supported theatres operating in a relatively confined area.

First, some of the theatre in Paris that, with only 36 hours at my disposal, I sadly didn't get round to see: Face au Paradis, starring Eric Cantona, who continues his mutation from footballer to actor. The irresistibly titled Amour et Chipolatas. And also a dark and harrowing play called Extinctionafter the novel by Thomas Bernhard, which was recommended to me by a psychiatrist in a café. Perhaps he recommends this play a lot, hoping for custom from traumatized theatre-goers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my sample jar contained results that were good, bad and indifferent. And so, in reverse order, we'll start with the indifferent. Le Point Virgule is a well-regarded venue for one man shows, and Tuesday evening's offering was Breton performer Arnaud Cosson. The theatre claims to seat 120, but I can only imagine that this is achieved by patrons sitting in one another's laps. So, an intimate space, then, rather like cosying up in someone's front room.

The audience certainly seemed to feel at home: an informal mix of children, smart Parisiens and a smattering of stout mesdames from the provinces, clearly felt they could comment freely on the proceedings. Cosson's style of carrying on conversations with imaginary interlocutors, whether as a boulangère or a school drugs awareness speaker, was occasionally scuppered by their willingness to jump into his pauses. Often it was just a sort of comfortable commentary on Cosson's reflections: "Oh la!" or "voilà!" -- a very different style of heckle from the beery harassment of a London comedy club.

Cosson himself is likeable enough, and lopes round the stage amusingly enough. He does passable impersonations of French types, but I was at times not absolutely sure of the tastefulness of his material. Maybe I was missing a layer of irony. One of his numbers was a mock love-song: "Si tu étais une ville/Tu serais Chernobyl". Some things just aren't funny in any language.

On to the Espace Marais, where I witnessed the murder of a man who's been dead for 300 years: Molière died all over again, at the hands of his countrymen, in this staging of Le Médecin Malgré Lui. A limp and embarrassing affair, the show was full of the sort of strap-on physicality that passes for genuine élan in some quarters. In particular, the direction apparently demanded gratuitous scrambling up ladders to an elevated gallery, unencumbered by any promptings from plot. No wonder poor Sganarelle was spuming with sweat by the end of the performance. Every so often a stab of 'Pearl and Dean' style music was broadcast, presumably to enliven the proceedings. It didn't. I kept myself awake puzzling over who the spooky, frilly heroine reminded me of. I got it by the end of the play: Bride of Chucky. And at 38 euros, c'est le rip-off!

Finally, what a pleasure to alight at the Café de la Gare, where Sébastien Azzopardi directs his own play, co-written with Sacha Danino, Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours. Inspired by the Jules Verne novel, the show is described as a "road movie" in the brochure, which captures the mischievousness of this cartoonish, pacey, seamless performance. A delightfully silly script is spiked with contemporary references, and some pitiless parodies, particularly of les anglais. I should have been offended, but I was laughing too hard. Even our own dear queen makes an appearance, her arm on permanent swivel-mode.

Such is their sure-footed timing and rhythm that the performers move like well-tempered parts to a single mechanism. Not a second is wasted: the ingeniously simple set contains a small stage-within-a-stage, which means the actors can swoosh the curtains across, like Superman in a phone booth, and change the furniture, or a costume, whilst another scene is being played out in front. Even those with very limited French would surely enjoy the expressivity and contagious high spirits of this show. Worth a detour.