France restores one of world’s largest theatre festivals – with masks and health restrictions

One of the world's biggest theatre festivals gets underway on Monday in the southern French city of Avignon after a year-long hiatus caused by Covid-19, with masks compulsory for audiences but organisers relishing a return to relative normality.

France restores one of world's largest theatre festivals - with masks and health restrictions
Culture minister Roselyn Bachelot in Avignon's open air theatre. Photo: Nicolas Tucat/AFP

Theatregoers and troupes have expressed excitement at being reunited for the 75th edition of the Avignon theatre festival, which rivals Edinburgh for the title of the world’s biggest showcase of performing arts.

“I feel euphoric, as if this is my first festival,” said festival director Olivier Py, who has run the event since 2013.

Being deprived of last year’s edition had shown both the public and performers alike “how precious it is”, he said.

The festival opens later Monday with a hugely-anticipated production by Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, starring French screen legend Isabelle Huppert and staged at the Papal Palace main festival venue.

Rehearsals of The Cherry Orchard. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

Rodrigues, 44, whose work at Lisbon’s Dona Maria II national theatre has made him one of the most sought after directors in Europe, will take over the running of the festival from its 2023 edition, French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot announced.

The pandemic still looms large over the three-week-long theatre extravaganza.

A South African dance performance by celebrated choreographer Dada Masilo was pulled from the programme on the eve of the opening night after members of the troupe tested positive for the virus or were contact cases.

Avignon, a picturesque walled city which was the seat of Catholic popes in the 14th century, has put in place several measures to try prevent the festival becoming a giant cluster.

Mask-wearing will be obligatory outdoors as well as in for the duration of the festival.

And venues will be ventilated for 40 minutes between each performance.

Audience members will not need to show proof of vaccination or clean Covid tests to be able to take their seats — except for shows at the Papal Palace.

The festival’s outlook brightened further on June 30 when the government
lifted capacity limits on most public spaces, meaning venues were allowed sell all their remaining seats.

For Py the move, which sparked a run on tickets, spelt nothing short of a “renaissance” for the festival, which runs to 50 productions across 21 venues as well as hundreds of other shows in the even bigger “Avignon Off” fringe festival.

The fate of this year’s edition of the Off festival had at one point been uncertain.

With the all-clear only coming in May, this year’s Off offering of street and stage theatre, mime, dance and song comes to just a little over 1,000 shows, down from nearly 1,500 in previous years.

“We don’t know how it is going to go off,” Sebastien Benedetto, head of the association that runs the Off festival, admitted to AFP.

He cited the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in France as a threat to the festival.

“But we’re happy to be back in Avignon, which is where the whole French theatre world meets up,” he said.

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Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.