The Stage Is Set: the Roman Theatre of Orange

Roman Theatre of Orange, Théâtre antique d’Orange, Orange, France

As part of my summer trip to the South of France, after over twenty years of eager anticipation, I finally made it to the Roman Theatre in Orange.  And, crushingly, I was disappointed.

The stage back wall of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

The theatre is widely publicised as being one of the best preserved Roman theatres of Europe, but somehow it left me cold.  Doubly ironic considering the fact that the temperature that day was over 40 degrees.  Since 1981 it’s been a World Heritage Site.  During the summer it hosts opera productions, so it’s still a useful space.  But it in spite of its evident grandeur, it wasn’t really very engaging.  It didn’t help that there were some really ugly props on the stage, but that wasn’t the main problem.

The stage of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

The theatre was built in the early 1st century AD (possibly during the reign of Augustus) for the colony of Arausio.  Arausio was established in 40 BC by the soldiers of the Legio II and it had evidently become quite important quite quickly, for a theatre was quite a prestigious building to have in town.  It would have staged all sorts of theatrical performances, from plays to pantomimes, for free, to an audience who liked the spectacular as much as modern audiences.  Magnificent sets and clever use of stage machinery helped to make a happy populace and a happy populace would help to re-elect the local dignitary who had paid for the shows in the first place.

Some remaining columns in the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

A central view of the stage of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Originally there would have been a wooden roof over the theatre, but this was apparently destroyed by a fire.  The venue could have been able to seat up to 7,300 people, over three levels of seating.

The most impressive element of the theatre is the wall, known as the scaenae frons – the elaborately decorated permanent architectural background of the stage, usually with three entrance points.  In Orange it has preserved its original 121 feet (37 meters) height, which certainly looks impressive now, but would have looked a great deal better in the Roman period, when it would have been decorated with marble, mosaics, statues, friezes and columns.

In 391 AD, after the rise of Christianity, theatres were closed by official edict.  The one in Orange was probably pillaged by the Visigoths in 412 AD, and over the centuries it lost much of its stone to other buildings.  Interestingly, though, it was still well enough preserved to be used to stage performances from the 12th until the 16th century, when the Wars of Religion led to the city getting sacked.

In 1825 reconstruction work began on the theatre, thanks in large part due to Prosper Mérimée, the director of Historical Monuments in France, who is more famous as the writer of the story of ‘Carmen’.  The intention from the start was to use it as a venue for performances, and in 1869, the first ‘Roman Festival’ was held there – and this turned into an annual festival called the Chorégies.  Operas as well as classical plays were staged – Sarah Bernhardt played ‘Phèdre’ here in 1903 – although since 1969 the theatre has kept with being an opera festival, leaving the theatrical works to the festival held in nearby Avignon.

The productions shown here draw high profile singers and in a room dedicated to the modern use of the theatre as an opera venue, we get Roberto Alagna wittering on at us in a documentary, interspersed with extracts of performances.  The theatre’s website excitedly calls these short documentaries ‘an incredible journey’ and states that some of the ‘best moments’ of the building’s past will come alive through watching some videos.  Judging by the reaction of our fellow visitors, I’d say that only a minute percentage found these films ‘incredible’.

The side and seating of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Apparently this is a statue of the Emperor Augustus, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Remaining columns, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

View of the stage, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Closed off corridors, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Open corridors, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Looking at the external construction of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

View from the top of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

View out to the stage area from the corridors, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Getting a good idea of the size of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

A view of the distant hills from the top of the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Excavations in the 1920s next to the theatre revealed the remains of a temple and its altar.  It is likely that this area forms part of an augusteum, dedicated to the worship of the Emperor.  Frankly, there isn’t much to see.

Temple area beside the Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Surviving fragments of the Temple area, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Part of the temple area, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

So In Summary

Well, I had to visit the theatre.  I didn’t enjoy it.  I was massively disappointed by this fact, and slightly frustrated by it too, because it wouldn’t have taken much to have enhanced the experience.  The theatre and the next door damp-squib of a museum are run by a group called Culturespaces, who are in charge of many sites in France, including the amphitheatre at Nîmes.  Rather like the amphitheatre, the theatre at Orange seems to rest a little too much on its intrinsic value as a Roman building, rather than trying to provide you with a particularly enriching visit.  In both sites there was an emphasis on using tablets/audio guides to tell the story – absolutely fine, in its way, but that doesn’t change the fact that once you’ve explored the bricks and mortar, you’re done.  There were plenty of spaces that could have been used for interesting little exhibitions about Roman theatre, its audiences, its stage machinery, etc.  Indeed it would be nice to have just even one room with artefacts that somehow relate to the Roman origins and highlight the uniqueness of this particular theatre.  Is that too much to ask?

And the little documentaries were a little dull.  We watched them, because we had the time, but they weren’t anything to inspire you – and I say this as a fan of both opera and the theatre.  Some paraphernalia from the festivals, perhaps, would have been nice.

Also, bafflingly, the only information boards around were aimed at children.  They were placed on the walls of otherwise empty rooms which radiated off the corridors of the seating area of the theatre. They were quite cute.  They were only in French.  They were very wordy and looked like they’d been taken from a book.  It didn’t feel right for a site like this at all.

Signs about Roman life for kids, Roman Theatre of Orange, Orange, France

Further Information

There is a joint ticket available for here and the museum next door.

The website is available in English: www.theatre-antique.com

Roman events are held at the theatre, so if you would like plan your visit to coincide with one of them, check out their website above.

Be aware that there are performances on during the summer, which may mean they close earlier than usual – so if you are keen on visiting on a particular day, check that they will be open on their website.

How To Get There

Walking from the train station to the theatre is straightforward.  I couldn’t find a map to post a link to here, but the theatre’s website has one you can check out: www.theatre-antique.com

Buses are around, but I didn’t bother using them so can’t vouch for their ease of use.

To get to Orange by train, check out the SNCF site: www.sncf.com

 

 

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