I know it seems very unlikely that in the 21st Century I would be doing anything with Victor Hugo, let alone rehearse, and yet it is true… in a way.
I was in Montreuil-sur-Mer, a beautiful and ancient town in northern France, at the weekend. In my capacity as a journalist I was doing a tour of the town, research for a feature. My lovely local guide, Jean-Marie Chevalier had walked tirelessly around the cobbled streets, up the hills and down, round the ramparts, in and out of ancient buildings, imparting information with expertise and passion and answering all my questions patiently.
In the course of our walk we went to the Citadel of Montreuil-sur-Mer, an ancient fortress high on the ramparts of this walled town and he took me into an old stone building, explaining that normally there is an exhibition of art, artefacts, all sorts, but today it was the location for costumes for a show.
The show was “Les Miserables” – a son et lumière production which takes place on the ramparts every year in honour of one Victor Hugo who was very much inspired by his time in this town.
We’d already walked in the footsteps of Victor Hugo, along the ramparts where he promenaded with his mistress, into the Abbey of Saint Saulve where he had sketched a stone font in a letter to his wife Adele. We had wandered along the Cavée St Firmin where Hugo wrote of witnessing a coach crash (an important scene in the book) and past the Hotel de France where he lunched with his mistress in room 12b…
In the old L’Arsenal building where Napoleon’s soldiers once stored their equipment, six hundred colourful costumes hung from every available space under the massive, centuries old beams – this was where the actors in the Son et Lumière production have their dressing rooms. I asked Jean-Marie, my guide, to pose with his costume – he will be playing the captain of the Gendarmerie. Apart from his work for the tourist office Jean-Marie is also an actor, and has been in several films and even acted with Julie Depardieu (daughter of the glorious Gerard). He, Jean-Marie that is not Gerard, along with hundreds of volunteers from the town will take part in the show which takes place over eight days in July and August (see website below).
On the way out we bumped into a bearded gentleman who looked very familiar. Jean-Marie introduced him, Monsieur Fontaine, head of the tourist office for Montreuil and the Seven Valleys AKA Victor Hugo. The likeness is striking and Monsieur Fontaine plays the part of the narrator Victor Hugo in the show at Montreuil-sur-Mer. We got talking about the arts in Montreuil – Msr Fontaine is a passionate supporter and told me I must attend the Lyrique Festival in December and he invited me to come and watch the Les Miserables rehearsals on the ramparts…
The late afternoon sun beat down on the lawned area where the show will take place; shadows were cast by the tall trees and the turrets of the castle. Hundreds and hundreds of people started to pour into the area and take their seats in preparation for the rehearsal. Monsieur Fontaine/Victor Hugo welcomed them and made a speech of thanks to “Les Cousettes”, the costume designers, to the prop makers, and all those involved in the preparations for the show. Then Dominique Martens (an author and Sound & Light Director by day) the show director took over – running the actors through their paces, co-ordinating the dancers entrances – it was an enormous undertaking. Coaching more than three hundred amateur performers on where to stand, enter, exit – I watched in awe as this, their very first rehearsal, came together. Victor Hugo/Monsieur Fontaine explained that they only have three rehearsals – almost 20% of the entire towns folk (population 2,500) take part.
Monsieur Lartens called for Jean Valjean to enter stage – he was nowhere to be found. “Probably in the pub” muttered someone behind me. No matter, they carried on with a substitute; he will join later no doubt.
Some volunteers come back every year, my guide Jean-Marie has been in 17 of the 18 productions here in the open air on the Citadel, the old hands help the newbies with their cues, where to stand, how to act.
The backdrop is the same as it was when Victor Hugo walked there and found his inspiration for the epic story of Les Miserables – I can only imagine how amazing it will look at night, in costume with the lights and the cannons and cavalry on horses storming across the grass…
I shall be back to tell you for Victor Hugo told me I must come to see the production and so I am… I’ll be there for the first night next week and I can’t wait…
You can be there too! Details and tickets: www.tourisme-montreuillois.com