Dr Emily Garside considers the latest production from August012; Mathilde Lopez’s re-imagining of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, told through the lens of Brexit.
Les Mis is not the musical. August012 are at pains to point that out. It’s doubtful any of the army of Cameron Mackintosh devotees will wander in here in by mistake, but just in case, they check at the start. It’s difficult to ignore the hint of snobbery that kicks off the production, the idea that the musical is something ‘else’ something ‘other’ and that this version is, by its very non-musical nature, more intellectual, more weighty. This is, after all, about Brexit.
Andrew Davies, who adapted Victor Hugo’s novel for the BBC earlier this year, said that the one thing he learned from the experience was to “lean in” to the source material. And for an artist wishing to address Brexit, it is all there – the great division of Europe, the love and the loss. These are great themes for our time. There’s a reason perhaps the “dreaded” musical endures and it’s not necessarily the score, it’s the way it uses Hugo’s story.
In the many extracts read from the novel in Mathilde Lopez’s re-imagining, the beauty and poetry of Hugo’s words are so engaging that there is always a moment of regret at snapping back to ‘reality’. Likewise, there is a disconnect in the staging as the Les Mis/Brexit elements feel like they’re only sitting side by side, rather than being explored together. It’s a huge undertaking, and a worthy experiment to try and fuse Hugo’s world with the modern themes of Brexit, but unfortunately the two never quite click into place. Instead we get a fascinating and engaging re-telling of the Battle of Waterloo, via Hugo, interspersed with a recollection of the night of the EU referendum. Ultimately what comes across is that a dedication to the source material alone would have stood more powerfully as allegory, leaving a chance for the audience to make connections to that other contemporary division of Europe.
But Les Mis is an engaging piece of work, and an ambitious one. In the August012 version there is a great use of the space, and the design of 360 degree set does much to elevate the action. The centre of the room is laid with turf, offering a scent of grass to the room, evoking the battlefield. The two blocks of seating angle either side of this, with the company using both the gaps in the seating and the spaces around and beside them throughout. Particularly effective is the use of the highest space in the room, where performers often move with stunning visual effect. Relatively simple in design, the reconfiguration of the room does give the company much to play with. The only frustration perhaps being the limited space given to the dancers to explore what they were doing to its fullest potential.
And the dance company – young dancers from USW’s BA Dance course, with choreography from Matteo Marfoglia – are certainly a highlight. It’s frustratingly rare that ‘theatre’ audiences experience contemporary dance. This incorporation into Les Mis is an indication of just what dance can be and do for a production, and it proves the most emotive and engaging thing on stage.
The three central performances from Rhi Richards, Carwyn Jones and Luciana Trapman are strong, each offering a truly personal take on the Brexit situation. There is a debt to Godspell in their using their own identities to tell an existing narrative. Told with handheld microphones, and the use of a stage manager DJ, there are further echoes of contemporary musical theatre imagery there, which makes the snobbery toward the Cameron Mackintosh musical all the more confusing.
But the actors-avatars-personal element works. Brexit must be a personal story when the backdrop is as vast and unknowable as Waterloo. That the tales themselves are in fact fairly mundane also works; as much as the referendum night was earth-shattering for so many, the night itself was also, as one character points out, a mix of pizza and Doritos. They are interesting characters, and the question of ‘what happened next’ of course hangs over them. It is frustrating that we do not get to explore the characters beyond the referendum night – we’re caught in a moment two years ago.
That is where August012’s Les Mis comes unstuck. The problem with staging a Brexit play is, well, Brexit. Right now, Brexit is moving fast, and while the company promises to respond to the ongoing news situation, what they actually deliver is an interesting and important account of vote night… while the rest of us are distracted by what’s happening next. It is important to reflect back on the night of the vote, to take stock of where we all were, how we responded, but the more relevant and immediate topic is what’s happening now. The source material speaks of themes of division that are as old as Europe, but Les Mis fixates on one night.
In as much as Les Mis leans in to Hugo, it also has a very British sense of the absurd, a good helping of August012’s trademark wackiness and irreverence, something that feels very correct in light of how Brexit has unfolded since the referendum.
(photo credit: Jorge Lizalde)
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Dr Emily Garside is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.