‘People think it’s a nest of vipers!’ Inside the illustrious Comédie-Française

The Parisian theatre company is on a rare visit to the UK with Ivo van Hove’s The Damned. What are the secrets of the world’s oldest active troupe?

Companies like nothing more than to refer to themselves, unironically, as families. The actors of Paris’s Comédie-Française have a better claim than most, however: for starters, directors keep casting them as fratricidal dynasties. Just this season, the oldest active theatre troupe in the world has portrayed a tribe pushed to the brink in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander; the murderous siblings Electra and Orestes; and the Essenbecks, the wealthy Nazi-era family that comes undone in The Damned.

Now London audiences will get to see some of the Comédie-Française’s star performers lock horns, too. This week, The Damned, staged by Ivo van Hove and based on Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film, will open at London’s Barbican. It is the French company’s first UK tour in nearly two decades. The production is hardly traditional, with spare sets and extensive live filming, yet as an intergenerational tragedy, it hits the mark chillingly.

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‘People think it’s a nest of vipers!’ Inside the illustrious Comédie-Française