English is gloriously absent at the Avignon festival – and, despite my French not being up to much, I found myself wondering if it mattered.

How much can you get out of a play if it’s performed in a language you don’t understand? This question was very much on my mind at theAvignon festival in the south of France. It was my first time at this large-scale, artistically ambitious arts shindig, which bears similarities to theEdinburgh International festival. Both started in the 1940s to cheer up a post-war populace; both have a large fringe festival alongside the main programme (though in Avignon this is known, delightfully, as the “Off”); both entirely commandeer their host town.

I was there at the invitation of the main festival’s co-director, Vincent Baudriller; a few weeks back, he got in touch with me to say that he was keen to encourage more British audiences to visit Avignon. Theatre fans apparently flock there from all over Europe and beyond – Spain, Germany, Holland, Russia – and those countries’ newspapers and websites devote reams of space to the festival. “But you Brits,” he said, “generally stay away.”

He seemed to be right. Among audiences, I heard barely a word of English spoken during the three days I was there. On stage, it wasn’t such a blank: one of the four shows I saw, entitled Kristen, Nach Fraülein Julie (Kristen, After Miss Julie), a fantastic adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, directed by Britain’s own Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner, was performed in German with surtitles in French and English. And I studied Italian and Spanish at university, so when I saw Castellucci‘s latest production, Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio (On the Concept of the Face of the Son of God), on Saturday, I was able to understand most of what was being said (though I so disliked this bizarre, hour-long skit about a son cleaning up after his incontinent father’s sudden attack of dysentery that I rather wish I hadn’t).

My French, however, is limited; so watching Mademoiselle Julie – yet another adaptation of the Strindberg, with the wonderful Juliette Binoche in the title role, which will come to the Barbican next year – was a challenge, especially with no surtitles. I could follow the action, because I had recently read the play; but the moments when the audience erupted into sudden, knowing laughter at a joke I’d completely missed were slightly embarrassing.

What I did realise, however, was that because I wasn’t focusing so much on the words, I was much more aware of the production as a whole – the white-box set, the dancers writhing away in the background – and of the actors’ incredible physicality. In shifting my attention away from the language, the experience of watching the play became even more intense.

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