At the end of July and the beginning of August something quite magical takes place at Montreuil-sur-Mer, up high on the ramparts, in the historical setting of the ancient Citadelle… Janine Marsh visits Montreuil-sur-Mer for a very special event.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is in fact not sur-Mer at all but it was once, many centuries ago when the sea ran along a wide tributary and lapped at the walls of the splendid royal harbour town of Montreuil. Silt put a stop to that hundreds of years ago and the nearest sea is at Etaples, a charming little fishing town on the Opal Coast some 10km away.
When Victor Hugo arrived in Montreuil-sur-Mer in September 1837, he declared himself a little disappointed that there was no sea but he was most impressed with the walled town and its views over the surrounding countryside and the lower town where the poorer people lived. He was also much taken with the people he met and the sights he saw and several years later the memories of this short visit were to form the basis of his new book Les Misèrables.
Almost 150 years after Les Misèrables became a best-seller, the people of Montreuil-sur-Mer decided to perform a son et lumière show based on the story. It has been going since 1996, performed each summer and has grown to become a wonderful success story for this town of 2,500 people.
This year I went along for the first time to see the show which has become legendary in this part of France.
We took our seats at 10.00 pm – the show starts at 10.30pm when it is dark. 1500 seats are available in a coliseum formation on the rampart setting just in front of the ancient chapel and the Napoleonic arsenal building – an absolutely stunning backdrop to the show.
On the night I went it was a balmy, warm evening, the stars twinkled above, the crowds poured in through the castle gates and up the little hill and took their seats. We’d been warned to take warm jumpers as the show doesn’t end until gone midnight (it lasts one and a half hours) and can get a little chilly but they weren’t needed on this night.
The story is told by a narrator – Victor Hugo, who remains on stage throughout the show – through a recording of texts from the book. Key elements of the story form the story in the show, the voices of the actors ring out loud and clear – in French. It definitely helps to know the story beforehand if you don’t speak French (summary for Les Misèrables) or purchase one of the glossy souvenir programmes for just €2 to read a summary and find out more about the show.
The lights dimmed and the show unfolded in front of us. The narration is punctuated with music and voice overs by actors as the hundreds, literally hundreds of people, perform.
Some 450 volunteers take part in this outstanding event from costume designers and makers, prop makers etc. through to more than 300 actors.
There are soldiers on horseback, cannons, fireworks, special effects in lighting and sound, a wonderful atmospheric backdrop and the narration stays true to the book.
It was an absolutely exceptional and dazzling performance – I loved it.
Video of scenes from the REAL Les Miserables in Montreuil-sur-Mer
Montreuil Tourist Office Website for times and tickets to see Les Miserables performed at Montreui-sur-Mer every July and August.