Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

As bleak as it gets

Nora Amin reviews Marwa Radwan’s take on Les Miserables


Les Miserables (photo: Hana Hafez)
Les Miserables (photo: Hana Hafez)

Another piece in the 11th National Theatre Festival was the Comic Theatre production The Comedy of the Miserables, written and directed by Marwa Radwan and presented on the Miami Theatre stage. As is clear from the title, it seems to be linked with Victor Hugo’s famous novel, but Radwan’s story of an oppressed young man who spends 19 years in jail for the wrong reasons — the only aspect of the novel she extracts — makes the reference somewhat forced. She could quite easily have done away with the Hugo connection and written her piece from scratch. After all, the name of the character does not matter much, and the fact that he was in jail could apply to any other fictional character taken out of the original context and disconnected from any other aspect of the story. Equally unjustified, it seems, is the use of a screen and projector to add footnotes to the production such as “Hugo had forgotten that detail”, though this has the dramatic function of suggesting that the new playwright is filling in the gaps in Hugo’s story, completing or correcting it. But since there are no grounds for comparing the two authors or believing there are gaps to be filled, and since Hugo’s text has absolutely no relevance here, the trick, indeed the deception of an imaginary connection turns out to be futile. This is not a creative rights or ethical issue, but the necessity of using Hugo as a character is aesthetically and dramatically questionable enough to warrant a major objection.

The Comedy of the Miserables obviously presents itself as a comedy, but it has no comedy in it. No laughs or even smiles are brought about by seeing it, and the structure and style are not comic; why it was produced by the Comic and not the Youth Theatre, for example, is not clear. Over a very slow 90 minutes, indeed, the spectators see almost nothing. There are almost no events, no story, no transformations or change. We sit there for 90 minutes and watch the stillness, the drama of stagnation, a stage of void and ridicule. The whole thing can be summarised in one line: Jean is in love but he cannot admit it to his beloved. That’s it. The play starts with Jean coming out of prison after 19 years, none of his old friends recognise him. Then there is a flashback preceding the aforementioned footnote in which we see 95 per cent of the performance — nearly an hour and 15 minutes of Jean being in love and unable to say a word to the girl he loves. She knows he loves her but waits for him to say it. Indeed, she keeps asking him, “Will you say it now?” And he always answers, “A word has its own timing”. I gather that the message of the performance is that if one waits too long to admit love, one loses that love forever. But Jean does give up on the love he feels, thinking that someone else, the character of the villain, loves his girl. We are not at all convinced why he sacrifices his love to a villain who has done him wrong in every way. Then suddenly the story is over.

But even then it is not really because we still need to come back from the flashback — to find everybody looking exactly the same and in the same costumes. Surprise: time has no impact whatsoever on the characters, and 19 years mean absolutely nothing to the director. Jean meets his girl again and finds out she divorced the villain, then he marries her as if nothing had gone wrong in the first place. This ending tells me the message that I got earlier was false, because I realise the performance’s final message says that even if you postpone admitting your love and lose your lover you get her back again whenever you want. She will always be there waiting for you when you feel the time has come for you to utter the word. When the word was uttered, what is more, it felt like nothingness; the actor’s articulation made it totally meaningless and unnecessary, almost like a pejorative word. As spectators, we felt betrayed. We were betrayed and disrespected for 90 minutes. But who is to blame for this? The playwright-director? The producer? State theatre? Or us spectators for revolting at once?

Maybe there were a few good actors in the performance, and the leading female actress is a good singer, but what good is that in a context where the spectators feel betrayed? The production also claims to be a musical, we hear recorded music and song, and we see a few, poorly choreographed dances. What good is this? Why do all state theatre productions have to be musicals? All except The Last Hour. Is this musical tendency responsible for the dramatic failure of several productions, including this one? I am afraid we are confronting a new theatrical fad for reproducing the same “musical” recipe. But The Comedy of the Miserables exposes fools this mysterious concoction, for it disappoints both as a musical and as a comedy. This is as bleak as it gets. It is bleak to look at its categorisation as a successful production by promising young theatre makers, because it suggests the future of theatre is bleak. It is bleak to expect comedy and find nothing funny but only our spectatorship being ridiculed and jeopardised. It is we who have become “the miserables” needing to call out for help.

Is anyone there? 

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