Director Mathilde Lopez explores the impulses and ambitions behind her reimagining of Victor Hugo’s French classic for the stage in the age of Brexit for award-winning theatre company August012.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s seminal piece, better known as a musical in Britain, is a complex historical, philosophical and epic novel that embodies the post-revolutionary state of mind of France and Europe. It contains nineteen chapters dedicated to the battle of Waterloo and unrelated to the main story line. Often skipped as none of the characters figure in them (except in the last 3 lines of the nineteenth chapter), they depict the complexity and absurdity of the bitter British victory and the operatic fall of Napoleon and the French Revolution.
I am working on the piece with Matteo Marfoglia as choreographer and co-conceptor and John Norton as composer, performer and co-conceptor. We are working on something that will bring together Les Misérables and the Brexit referendum, two subjects that are or have generated enormous expectations and are in fact quite unknown. So, it is explosive, surprising, dense and absurd. Above all it is an ode to resistance and perseverance.
Following the text structure, we will punctuate Hugo’s abundant images and detailed precision of the battle with the Brexit referendum vote timeline, both events taking place in 24 hours, both embodying crucial philosophical and moral battles whose outcomes shocked the victorious and the vanquished before sending Europe into turmoil.
Our three actors (Ri Richard, Carwyn Jones, Luciana Trapman), three senior participants (Lesley Evans, Robert and Geraldine Blundell), and seven young dancers from the BA (hons) Dance course at ATRiuM, University of South Wales (Bethany Lydon, Kristiina Kalinina, Victoria Ioannou, Courtney Sellick, Georgia Davies, Samantha Underwood, Emily Andsager), are profoundly representative of Cardiff on the night of the referendum. And they are excellent.
There came a point when it was clear the whole Brexit episode has been so insulting and dishonest that I refused to hear any more garbage from the press or politicians and so I threw myself into reading all the European classics I could – (and Steinbeck too for the immense compassion). I wanted to be able to breathe again. It was Les Misérables that hit me hardest, and particularly the depiction of the battle of Waterloo where I felt a true resonance in what we had been living, the political and philosophical bafflement, disempowerment and ultimately the carnage.
We have subtitled our Les Mis ‘a raging theatrical lament’. It’s a theatre lament in the Hebrew tradition of the psalms; the expression of defeat, grief, loss but staged for hope. We read Hugo while the referendum vote is being counted and the auditorium slowly turns into a battlefield. It’s a carnage where all protagonists are down by the end. Anyone who thinks they are coming to see the Cameron Mackintosh ‘spectacular’ is going to have a bit of a shock, although, without giving anything away, we will have a couple of nods to the musical.
We know that we are going to offend some people but following our two last productions (Of Mice and Men and Highway One), our audiences would expect nothing less from us. It’s not exactly playing it safe, is it? Wrestling with the epic and unmanageable subject of Brexit through a famous British victory written by a French poet.
We have no desire to attempt to encompass everyone’s thoughts or tell all the facts; we are not journalists and will embrace our subjective points of view, irrational fears, internal poetic landscapes and be truthful to the sense of loss, anger and fear that the referendum unleashed.
People are exhausted by crafted objectivity, apparent democracy and journalistic approaches. We hope that they will embrace an unapologetic historical and political show that affects us fully as poetic, epic and sacred beings.
The biggest challenge in creating this piece has been defining the limits of the subjects – Les Misérables and Brexit – and gathering the right team to wrestle with such a monolithic text and take on a very volatile subject. While remaining accessible and relatable – and relevant. Things are changing every day, we still don’t know what Brexit means – the shows on the Saturday could end up being very different from the one on Wednesday. At the time of writing this it is looking less likely that we will be leaving on the 29th, but who knows? We have to reflect on how volatile the situation is, and lament the madness of the last three years.
Mathilda Lopez is the founder and artistic director of August012
More details about August012’s Les Miserable can be found here.
(Images credit: Jorge Lizalde @ Studio Cano)