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David Furlong as Sganarelle

Bastille Festival, behind the scenes of The Doctor in Spite of Himself

By Manon Variol

In a studio space near London Bridge, the Exchange Theatre company is getting ready. They will perform at the Drayton Arms Theatre from 21 June to 17 July for the Bastille Festival. The aim is both to help the Brits know more about the great classics of French theatre and form part of the French celebrations of their national day. This year, Molière gets the limelight with The Doctor in Spite of Himself.

On the day I meet them, the company are going over the play for the first time. After a quick lunch, the actors gather for their rehearsal. The backstage and curtain are represented by a wooden structure and a hanging sheet. The windows are covered to stop anyone seeing the play before it is ready to be performed in public. 

The first act starts. The actors perform without their costumes, wearing jeans and trainers, their text in their hands. They keep Molière’s dialogues and adapt it to 21st century humour. The performers are having fun, they laugh, give advice and whisper their texts to their co-workers. In the main role of Sganarelle is David Furlong, the director and founder of the Bastille Festival.

“We don’t want theatre to be elitist”

David Furlong founded the Bastille Festival 9 years ago
David Furlong founded the Bastille Festival 9 years ago

David Furlong, tall, with unruly brown and  hair and a stubble beard, is a passionate man. He grew up in Mauritius before moving to France as a teenager, where he was able to perform as much as he wanted. After school, he studied theatre at the Chaillot National Theatre, a few steps away from the Eiffel tower. “These were some of the best years of my life” he says with stars in his eyes. 

When he came to London, David rediscovered theatre, this time from the point of view of Shakespeare and Marlowe. “The Brits really like their own writers. But nobody here knows Paul Claudel for instance. Whereas we all know who Virginia Woolf is!” He met Fanny Dulin, and realise the very limited number of performances that focussed on French plays in London and together, they founded the Exchange Theatre company to stage classic French plays. Claudel, Sartre and Feydeau’s plays, slightly adapted to modern culture, are performed on London stages. “We want to produce shows accessible to everyone, so that theatre will no longer be elitist” David explains.

Celebrate the French national day from the other side of the Channel

In 2007, David and Fanny were teaching theatre to children and adults when they came up with the idea of the Bastille Festival: French plays performed on 14 July by their students but also by professional actors. Everything was organised within a month. A great challenge successfully completed. “The first festival lasted a weekend, then, the year after, a whole week. This year will be the ninth and it will last 4 weeks” the director says.

This year, the Bastille Festival consists of 8 plays. The main show, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, will be performed in both French and English. David has combined 4 different translations to remain faithful to Molière’s text, but also to make it understandable to the British audience. 

The Exchange Theatre company was performing the play for the first time
The Exchange Theatre company performing the Doctor in Spite of Himself

When asked about his choice for Sganarelle this year, David explains with passion: “The Doctor in Spite of Himself is way more interesting than you would think. Molière wrote it after his greatest works, which are existentialist plays. You could wonder why he wrote such a silly play. Molière is actually mocking the audience, that decides if a play should live or die. Don Juan and Tartuffe were rejected at the time but not The Doctor in Spite of Himself. I think Molière used this play to talk about himself. He wrote a comedy in spite of himself.”

The programme of the Bastille Festival at the Drayton Arms Theatre

The Doctor in Spite of Himself will be performed alternatively in English and French from 21 June to 13 July at 8pm.

The Bastille Festival also offers 4 French plays :

  • Un Petit Jeu Sans Conséquence, performed for the first time in the UK by the professional actors of the Exchange Theatre: from 14 to 16 July at 6:30pm and 17 July at 6pm.
  • C’est Egal, performed by the Workshop (the Exchange Theatre’s drama lessons) 1st year students: on 3 July at 6pm.
  • Amours, by the Workshop 2nd year students: on 9 and 10 July at 6pm.
  • Ailes Blessées, written by Lula Suassuna for the Workshop 3rd year students: on 25 and 26 June then 2 July at 6pm.

Three plays will be performed in English by professional guest artists:

  • The Three Musketeers, by Cyphers: on 27 June at 8pm.
  • Hervé, Hervé Goffings’s one-man show: on 4 July at 8pm.
  • Yama - Tales of Shonai : on 11 July at 8pm.

Tickets from £9 to £14.
For more information, please click here

The Doctor in Spite of Himself will be performed from 21 June to 17 July at the Drayton Arms Theatre
The Doctor in Spite of Himself will be performed from 21 June to 17 July at the Drayton Arms Theatre


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