Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 May 2008
Issue No. 897
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nehad Selaiha

Les Miserables redefined

Nehad Selaiha watches a curious Egyptian version of the famous musical Les Miserables at the National

Novels have often been made into plays and plays have sometimes been turned into musicals. But have you ever heard of the libretto of a musical performed without the music as a straightforward drama? This was the surprise I got when I went to the National to watch Al-Bu'asaa' last week. I was quite unprepared for it, and it seemed a wildly crazy idea. Oddly enough, I enjoyed it and what is more, went through a whole box of paper hankies drying my tears and blowing my nose. After the first few scenes, which closely follow the original Alain Boublil/Herbert Kretzmer English libretto, making those familiar with the musical sorely miss Claude-Michel Schonberg's exquisite music, the performance takes off on its own wings. Though it continues to draw verbally on the original libretto, subtle changes and transitions are made, whole scenes are removed and others are merged and compressed, with bits of original writing here and there to make the new version cohere.

Click to view caption
Les Miserables at the National

Unlike the late poet Izzat Abdel Wahab, the late, great playwright Alfred Farag and poet Sayed Higab who, when adapting Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (the first in 1988, the second in 1993 and the third in 2004), had chosen to reset the play in Egypt at different periods, give characters Egyptian names and make them speak in colloquial Arabic, the translator/adaptor here, Osama Nureddin, himself a gifted poet and playwright, decided to keep the French historical setting, trusting that Hugo's novel and the English libretto based on it would appeal to people anywhere, and that with some pruning and a little rewriting he could bring it nearer home and make it touch a raw nerve in an Egyptian audience. As for the language, it was predominantly classical Arabic, ranging from the poetic to the prosaic, except in the case of the Thénardiers and their gang who were allowed to infuse a substantial dose of the colloquial into their speech

Reduced to its rudimentary structure, Hugo's voluminous novel is basically the story of a chase -- a policeman chasing a criminal -- which ironically ends with the protagonist and antagonist exchanging roles, moral positions and identities. In between the beginning of the chase and its end there is a huge number of intertwining stories which make up the rich texture of the novel. The most important of these, the Cosette/Marius love story, continues after the chase is over and ends happily with a wedding, thus appearing to have equal importance to the chase, if not more, and somewhat blurring the focus on it. In the musical adaptation, a delicate balance is achieved between the oppression/freedom theme, embodied in the Javert/Valjean conflict and the revolutionaries' uprising against the government, on the one hand, and the love interest represented by the Cosette/Marius/Eponine trio, on the other, with the Thénardiers, the villains of the piece, turned into a humorous, comic couple "to relax the audience" in "a very heavy show", in the words of Schonberg.

Though Osama Nureddin's adaptation of the Boublil/ Kretzmer libretto preserves the funny aspect of the Thénardiers, even exaggerates it, turning them into grotesque comic caricatures, it substantially tips the balance in favour of the Valjean/Javert relationship. This is achieved by cutting out or compressing many of the scenes in which Javert does not appear so that he is never long out of view. Take the sequence of scenes in the musical which begins with Javert arresting Fantine (now turned prostitute after being kicked out of Valjean's factory and selling her locket and hair to provide for her daughter) over a brawl with a customer, and ends with Valjean knocking Javert out and making his escape.

This is how the sequence goes in the musical: after Javert arrests Fantine, Valjean arrives on the scene in his new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and rescues a local man (Fauchelevant) who is trapped under a runaway cart. This reminds Javert of the abnormal strength of the ex-convict he has been tracking for years for breaking parole. However, he tells "The Mayor" that Valjean has been arrested and will be tried later in the day. Unable to let an innocent man take the blame for his own deeds, Valjean confesses to the court that he is the real Prisoner 24601, showing the convict's brand on his chest as proof. Before returning to prison, he visits the dying Fantine and promises to find and care for her daughter Cosette. When Javert arrives to arrest him, he asks for a three-day reprieve to fulfill his promise and when Javert refuses, he overpowers him and runs away.

In the Egyptian adaptation, Valjean is already on the scene when Javet arrives to investigate the brawl; when Javert is about to arrest Fantine, she dashes out, is run over by a cart and Valjean rushes to her rescue, carrying her back in and promising her to take care of her daughter before she dies. Javert begins to suspect him and tells him, while he is still cradling Fantine in his arms, that he reminds him of an ex-convict who has been safely arrested; Valjean is shocked and protests vehmently against the injustice of the law; Javert's suspicions grow and he tears open Valjean's shirt and finds the convict's number branded on his chest. As Javert is about to handcuff him, Valjean asks to be allowed to do as he had promised the dead woman and when Javert refuses, he knocks him down and escapes.

But nowhere is the foregrounding of the Valjean/Javet axis more apparent than in the way Nureddin chooses to end his play. After the army gives the rebels one last warning to surrender, a warning which they reject , a series of quick tableaux vivants suggesting the fierce fighting at the barricades follows; then all goes quiet, and the stage is strewn with bodies, including the dead Eponine and the wounded, unconscious Marius. The Thénardiers arrive to rob the dead and wounded, tear Cosette's ring off Marius's finger and, by way of punishment, discover the body of their daughter, Eponine. Valjean also arrives and recognizes Marius, but just as he is about to carry him off, Javert appears and consents to give him time to take Marius to safety. For a short while, Javert is alone on stage, looking back on his life as a protector of the law, wondering if he had been misled all along and debating the meaning of Valjean's actions and his own feelings about him. At the end of Javert's short soliloquy, Valjean walks in to give himself up as he had promised. The two argue for a while about the meaning of justice and whether the law should be merciful (which reminded me of Portia's "The quality of mercy" famous speech). As Javert grows more agitated and unsettled, he raises his revolver as if to shoot Valjean but shoots himself instead.

This shot marks the end of the play, reconciling both antagonist and protagonist, and its sad resonance reverberates in the whole play, carrying backwards to the beginning; it redefines Javert as just another victim of the invisible, ruthless system that governs the world of the play, not much different from Valjean. It also tells us that rather than serve the cause of justice, the law often serves those in power, and that, shorn of human sympathy and understanding, justice becomes a monstrous thing. More importantly, it tells us that, rather than any love story, or the future of Marius and Cosette, the play has been about the tragic fate of one of the servants of the law who, though honest and upright, was rendered morally blind by too much gazing at its harsh sun, so that when he finally turned his eyes inwards, he could only see darkness. Rather than lead to a new birth, Javert's sudden moral insight was too cruel to bear and killed him. As someone has said, neither Valjean, nor Javert' are "entirely on one side of the boundary separating Good and Evil." Javert's fate, however, was the more painful of the two simply because he failed to learn the quality of mercy in time. Explaining the paradox that is Javert, Victor Hugo wrote:

"Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice, - error. The honest, pitiless joy of a fanatic in the full flood of his atrocity preserves a certain lugubriously venerable radiance. Without himself suspecting the fact, Javert in his formidable happiness was to be pitied, as is every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as this face, wherein was displayed all that may be designated as the evil of the good."

Nureddin completely ignored the final part of the musical: the mourning women scene, Marius's mourning for his friends, Cosette's attempts to comfort him and their renewed vows of love, Valjean's confession to Marius of his criminal past and his voluntary withdrawal from Cosette's life, the wedding of Marius and Cosette, Marius's discovery that it was Valjean who saved his life when the Thénardiers show him the ring they had taken off the corpse they thought Valjean was carrying to prove to him that Valjean was a criminal, and the death-bed scene at the end, with Marius and Cosette bending solicitously over the dying Valjean while the souls of Fantine and Eponine hover overhead, ready to lead him to paradise.

Such sentimental scenes, if kept, would have no doubt delighted many Egyptian audiences who, like their counterparts in many countries, prefer their melodramas strong, not to mention that they always like plays to be neatly wrapped, with all the threads firmly tied, preferably with a happy marriage knot or a tearful, emotional reconciliation. The adaptation, however, which already boasted two emotional death scenes, Fantine's and Eponine's, could hardly support a third without betraying its purpose and design.

Keeping the same historical French setting as the musical was a challenge to set and costume designers Subhi El-Sayed and Gamalat Abdou. El-Sayed's imposing stage-design succeeded in creating a convincing illusion of an early 19th Century Parisian scene, with a cyclorama which changed colour to suggest time or suit the mood, an iron flyover bridge across it, where you often saw Valjean and Javert alternately gazing down on the city, and two massive rows of dreary, grey buildings on both sides of the stage, reaching upwards into the flies and extending down well beyond the proscenium arch to the edge of the avantscene, with some iron stairs and landings jutting out, and lots of windows that were lighted in the blackouts between scenes, as if to suggest the passage of time.

Those grim, forbidding buildings remained in full view throughout, enclosing the space between them and the people caught in it, like the walls of a formidable prison. You could still see them and feel their pressure even when bits of painted scenery descended from above, or were pushed from the sides, to represent the interiors of the house of the Bishop of Digne, the inn of the unscrupulous Thénardiers and Valjean's factory, or the beautiful garden of Valjean's elegant house where Cosette meets Marius. Gamalat Abdou's period costumes were exceptionally well-studied by Egyptian standards and were the best I have seen for a long time. They complemented the visual image created by the set, enhancing the illusion of Hugo's France. Tareq Mahran's original score was another asset; ranging from the rousingly patriotic to the softly lyrical or pronouncedly comic, it provided the right accompaniment to the scenes, accentuating their different emotional colours.

For the crowd scenes, particularly the fighting at the barricades which, to be convincing, require a large number of extras which the production budget could not afford, director Hisham Atwa wisely sought the help of choreographer Ayman Mustafa who came up with the idea of the tableaux vivants and, by deftly moving and deploying a dozen actors around the stage, created the illusion of a huge crowd. I do not know if the march of the prisoners at the beginning was his idea or the director's, but it was quite effective; and since it moved back and forth between the two rows of buildings on both sides of the stage, with Javert watching from the bridge at the back, it seemed to suggest at the very start the metaphorical dimension of the basic set and to identify the city as a prison.

Hisham Atwa's style of directing was lively, energetic, fast-paced and pronouncedly cinematic. It paid great attention to visual effects, achieving many interesting ones through a clever, imaginative lighting plan. Though his cast sports no stars, and most of it consists of young, budding actors, some of them recent graduates from the theatre institute, and some still students, he managed to get the best out of them and achieve a remarkable degree of ensemble acting. I don't recall ever seeing Yehia Ahmed before on stage; but after his magnificent, elegant, richly shaded and sensitively tuned performance as Javert -- a performance subtly punctuated with eloquent, arresting pauses, and charged with a kind of repressed intensity which made his face sometimes tense up and seem to suddenly go white, -- after his unforgettable Javert which seemed to bring to life Hugo's analysis of this complex character (quoted above), I would have no hesitation casting him as Hamlet; and this, if you know, is the highest compliment I can pay an actor.

As Valjean, Kamal Suliman played up the good side of the character at the expense of the darker, violent one. Yes, you could very well believe he stole a loaf of bread to save his starving niece, but, though he has a strong, sturdy physique, you could never imagine him commiting a violent crime or even trying to escape from prison. There was something flabby, spineless about his performance, a certain lack of nerve which robbed his suffering of any majesty; his was the suffering of the typical melodrama hero. May be he is not all to blame for this; may be the writing did not invest the character with enough complexity. Still, there were scenes where he could have put in more passion, more verve. He is usually a competent actor; but this time he did not seem in his usual form.

Khalid El-Nagdy and Walaa Farid played the Thénardiers; but, as in the case of the Valjean/Javert duo, one of them, El-Nagdy, was like a raging flame, spreading a shower of sparks around him and waves of heat and dominating the stage whenever he appeared, while the other, Farid, though looking quite attractive, seemed damp and limp. El-Nagdy never allowed his role as provider of laughs and comic relief to overshadow for a minute the fact that he, with his spouse, were the real vaillans of the piece. His presence was funny, but also repulsive and menacing. There was something hungry, rapacious about him, and the way he moved his massive bulk around, with legs slightly apart and torso bent forward, uncomfortably reminded you of a rhino about to charge. Yes, he was extremely funny, but quite loathsome. The wonder is, that in real life, El-Nagdy is a very gentle, courteous person and quite loveable. Farid, a charming actress in light comedy, was an obvious miscast here and seemed quite ill at ease in the part. Though she tried her best, she seemed all the time to 'parody' rather than impersonate Mme. Thénardier, and her wailing over the body of her dead daughter was terribly embarrassing and almost farcical.

Nirmene Za'za', a sensitive actress with a lovely, pensive face, took on both Fantine and Cosette and did both justice. She was better as Fantine though, may be because there is more meat to the character. After all, Cosette is a silly part which requires from an actress nothing more than just to look pretty and innocent. By temperament, Za'za' is not suited to such parts. She is too intelligent, too highly strung to fit into the character of the romantic heroine of melodrama. As Fantine, her grief was noble and dignified, and her death scene invested melodrama with the gradeur of tragedy.

Another lovely performance was Amani El-Bahtity's Eponine, a charcter which this adaptation amalgamates with the charcter of the young street urchin Gavroche in the musical. El-Bahtity succeeded in combining and suggesting both characters, amazingly coming across at once as a young woman desparately in love and as and a sharp, loveable street urchin acting too old for his years. As she ceaselessly dashed around the stage like a veritable whirlwind, alternately flying into sudden rages, then melting into tears like a forsaken child, stoutly defying her father and his gang and writhing with jealousy, bravely carrying ammunitions to the rebels behind the barricades and stoically carrying letters between her beloved Marius and Cosette -- whatever she did, she shifted moods with the quickness of lightening, keeping comedy and pathos in equal balance and was always amazing. I cried copiously as she lay dying in the arms of Marius, but was not ashamed since I could hear sniffles all around me, and her death scene had the same dignity and nobility as Fantine's.

I was quite surprised when I learnt that Tamer El-Kashif, who played Marius, was still a student at the Theatre Institute. This young man will go places in his profession. He has got what it takes: a good voice, good looks, candour and talent. Mohamed Allam, too (as the leader Enjolras who plans the revolt to free the oppressed lower classes of France), Ahmed El-Nahhas (as the factory forman who sacks Fantine when she rejects his advances), and Mustafa Tulba (as the Bishop of Digne (who offers Valjean food and shelter and not only forgives him when he steals some of his silver, but rewards him with two silver candlesticks to help him make a new start) gave noteworthy performances. And I mustn't forget the ensemble of young women and men who played the factory workers, the prostitutes and their customers and the revolutionaries with great zest and discipline. Al-Bu'asaa' would not have materialised without their valuable contribution.

Al-Bu'asaa' (Les Miserables), translated and adapted from the English Musical by Osama Nureddin, directed by Hisham Atwa, the National, April-May, 2008.


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