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Former Manchester United star Eric Cantona launches stage career

By John Lichfield

Former Manchester United footballer, Eric Cantona, has won grudging recognition in the past decade as a film and television actor (and also as a painter, photographer and poet).

Tomorrow night, though, his thespian career will take its most ambitious step. He will make his stage debut in one of the most prestigious theatres in Paris playing a dying man trapped in a ruined building. He appears as "Max" in Face au Paradis (Confronting Paradise), a Samuel Beckett-like two-hander about death by Nathalie Saugeon at the Théatre Marigny, a few steps from the Champs Elyseés.

This will be Cantona's first live performance, other than beach football and the occasional friendly match, since he retired as the resident dieu of Old Trafford (aka The Theatre of Dreams) in 1997.

Is he nervous? "I know where I am going," he said. "When I was a kid my ambition was to take the stage before 80,000 people. I did that. Now it's a theatre with 400 people. But if you don't expose yourself to danger, you can never know who you are. People booing and screaming and throwing things is nothing new to me. It's just another stage."

Cantona's nerves may be kept in check by the presence of his second wife, Rachida Brakni, who is directing the play. All the same, given his record of taking exception to dissenting spectators, the audience at the small but ornate Théatre Marigny might be advised to keep its opinions to itself.

Cantona has finally won respect as a film actor after a halting start to his new career. He has won much praise from French critics in the last two years for his performances as an unconventional detective in two television films. His appearance as himself last year in the Ken Loach film Looking for Eric was widely admired.

He has, however, mostly played sportsmen, gangsters or detectives. His appearance, until early May, in Face au Paradis, is an attempt at something more abstract and intellectual. He plays a dying man sitting or half-buried in debris discussing life and death with the only other character, played by Lorant Deutsch.

Brakni, a classical French actress who married Cantona two years ago after they appeared in a film together, is also making her debut as a director. It was she who persuaded Pierre Lescure, director of the Théatre Marigny and former head of the Canal Plus cable television channel, to take a gamble on Cantona.

"If I hadn't seen him in Looking for Eric, and if this had been a role in which he had to walk around on stage a lot, I would have hesitated," Lescure said. "As it is, he is sitting the whole time."

If that was not the most ringing endorsement of Cantona's versatility on stage, Lescure can comfort himself with some of the advantages that the casting will undoubtedly bring. After a disappointing year for the Paris stage in 2009, the move fits with a trend this year towards unusual casting to draw the crowds. The film actress Audrey Tautou (Amelie and Coco before Chanel) will make her stage debut in Heinrik Ibsen's play The Doll's House in Paris next month.

Advance sales for Cantona's three months run are excellent. The seagulls, it seems, are still following the trawler.

King Eric: Story so far

*Still known to fans at Manchester United as "King Eric", Cantona won four Premier League titles during his five-year stint at the club, thrilling supporters with his flair. But the player is as much known for his controversial behaviour as for his football. Besides that infamous "kung fu" kick directed at a Crystal Palace fan in 1995, his international career was brought to an early halt in 1988 when he called the French team's manager, Henri Michel, a "bag of shit". He produced two plays in Paris while still playing in Manchester, and since retiring from football in 1997 has embarked on a number of screen acting roles. These have included a role alongside Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth in 1998, and last year's critically acclaimed film Looking for Eric, directed by Ken Loach, which focused on a Manchester United fan who strikes up an imaginary relationship with the terrace hero.


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