Les Misérables – Review by George Fleeton
When we studied Victor Hugo’s vast historical fiction Les Misérables (1862) in college all those years ago there was no English translation available, so we had to plough through all five volumes without a comfort blanket: no Penguin translation available until 1976.
About as long as War and Peace, but significantly shorter than À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, reading such gargantuan novels did us no lasting harm.
The significance of Hugo can never be underestimated as the greatest French poet, novelist, dramatist of the 19th century.
Only Émile Zola came near, especially in his great Naturalist work Les Rougon-Macquart, a series of twenty novels dealing with the family of that name during the Second Empire of Louis-Napoléon III, ironically the exact period that Hugo spent in exile, mostly on Guernsey.
Indeed he lived almost twenty of his mature years there, and it was that objective distance that informed his writings on the travails of post-Waterloo France, as a commentator of courage and intelligence with a strong sense of justice.
The Les Misérables novels were written during that exile and in them ex-convict Jean Valjean, and his atonement for his dark past, was one of Hugo’s finest creations.
How unfortunate that, when Les Misérables – the Schönberg musical – came to London in 1985 (and it’s still running there), it trivialised the phenomenal impact of Hugo’s work of social commentary, in the same way that Lionel Bart’s Oliver had done twenty-five years earlier to Dickens’ text.
How much more imaginative it would be now to set to music – write an opera about – a dinner party for Dickens, Hugo and Zola taking place, say, in 1870, with us the audience as the flies on the wall?
Hotbuckle Productions, a Surrey-based professional theatre company, on a first visit to Down Arts Centre (October 14, matinée), went back to Hugo and distilled the vast canvas of his empathy with the sufferings of les misérables (more correctly les abaissés, the wretched plebs), reducing it to an electric drama lasting one hour and forty-five minutes.
On a spartan set, dominated by a versatile tumbrel axle, with Sharon Gilham’s strikingly simple costumes of the period, Hotbuckle’s five actors, playing multiple roles (and instruments), offered us a textbook example of how affirmative and assertive theatre-making is done.
This production took no prisoners (some expecting a reduced West End performance were disappointed), and its pace, fluency and control of the complex plot material were impressive.
Fantine and Cosette (both played by Emily Lockwood), Javert (Peter Randall) and Marius (Elliott Fitzpatrick) were brought to convincing life in proceedings dominated by Valjean, played here by the company’s artistic director Adrian Preater.
Frequently sentimental but always siding with the underdogs, the only discordant note was undisguised English regional accents declaiming the excellent translation.
The physical absence of various small props – sous, francs, letters, notes, guns at the barricades – was a distraction, and the comic deviousness of the Thénardiers was somewhat overblown.
But the theatrical atmospherics were spot on – the incidental music, the lighting and sound fx, the set piece death scenes for Fantine, Javert and Valjean – and all exemplified great stagecraft in a production full of good ideas and imaginative touches.
George Fleeton writes independently on arts and culture.