Monday, October 17, 2011

Loving Critiques

So, I saw Les Misérables in Åbo Svenska Teater again a little over a week ago, after a five-month break.

As everyone who knows me in the least is aware of, Les Misérables is my favourite among all musicals, and ÅST's Les Mis is my favourite among all productions.
Naturally, I'm very sad to know it's closing the next month, and "beyond excited" is a quite mild way of telling what I felt when I was back in the theatre. "Having a full-blown mental breakdown at the theatre foyer simply because of hearing a faint rehearsal of One Day More echoing from the stage" is a bit more accurate... Luckily, all my waiting paid off. The show was, if possible, better than I remembered, and I hold on to what I've said earlier: there's so much energy here, and the energy is what makes this so good. You can see every last member of the ensemble is giving their best, there's not a single weak link in the cast.
Not to mention I've received an incredible offer... I've screamed about it to enough people already, so I don't want to say too much here, but if everything goes well... It may be the subject of my most amazing blog entry ever. You'll probably hear more about this in a week's time.

That being said, today I'm going to ruthlessly dissect everything that's wrong about the ÅST production.
Yes, I'll first be the first one to admit there's not much to complain about. I'm a fan of Victor Hugo's novel, but I still honestly think a stage production of Les Mis can work perfectly fine without being a carbon copy of it. Therefore won't rage about every little detail that's different from the book. In general, I'm really open to different interpretations. And, the overall quality being so good, I'm afraid I'll start nitpicking right away.
That said, maybe still you're curious to know which parts I love the least?

My number one complaint is the characterisation of Grantaire.
Don't get me wrong. For the most part, Tore Norrby does a brilliant job as Grantaire - in my opinion, he has a voice too good for such a minor role! But the direction of this production makes Grantaire's character a confusing one.
In the novel, Grantaire is, depending on your point of view, hopelessly in love with Enjolras or at least the revolution leader's biggest fanboy. He's also a revolution-despising sceptic and a drunk. Needless to say, thanks to their completely opposite views of the world, Enjolras doesn't appreciate his admirer much, at least not before their final moments together...
In the musical, Grantaire is still a drunk - "Grantaire, put the bottle down!" - and still a sceptic. His part in Drink With Me, the song dedicated to the everlasting friendship between the young revolutionaries, speaks volumes: "Can it be you fear to die? Will the world remember you when you're gone, could it be your death means nothing at all? Is your life just one more lie?" Even though Grantaire has followed Enjolras to the barricade, in his mind the rebels are still "them", not "we". And, even though it's not mentioned in the musical's libretto, many productions include some elements of Grantaire and Enjolras's relationship from the book (one famous example begins at 6:30 at this link).

And then, in ÅST?
Sadly, almost every opportunity of developing the interesting love/hate relationship between Grantaire and Enjolras is wasted. "Grantaire, put the bottle down!" flies past in The ABC Café, and good ol' R is the first one to take a blood oath for the revolution. He fights at the barricade. He's like a big brother to Gavroche (though that doesn't bother me) and crosses himself when the little revolutionary dies (this, then again, kind of faintly does).
And then there's Drink With Me, or Drick med mig. Being a huge fan of a Swedish-speaking production, it's a bit ironic I'm not good at the language at all. I only understand basic things and speak and write on an even more basic level... But still, I'm quite certain the translation gives Grantaire lyrics like "will anyone notice that you're dead?" What annoys me is that no one seems to react to his words. Grantaire sings his part in a clearly non-introspective way, but Enjolras kind of almost approvingly glances at him and then everybody moves on with their lives. This one guy hates the revolution and tries his best to destroy the team spirit, but hey, who cares! Wine of friendship! Skål!
Grantaire then dies next to Enjolras on the barricade. During The Finale, which in this version features the spirits of all the most important dead characters of the piece, R is the one student to return with Enjolras. The way I understand these decisions is that, in order to justify the student with the most lines after Enjolras returning in the end, they've tried to soften his character, to make him almost Enjolras's right hand. I think I can see where they're trying to go with this, but the few lines the character has, in my opinion, undermine the efforts.

Keeping on the subject of the Finale, another thing I don't understand at all is placing the Thénardiers in the front row during the final reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing.
I love, love, love that this production has Javert in the finale. As most Les Mis fans agree, Javert is not the villain of the piece and doesn't deserve to be treated like one, being excluded from the Finale's heavenly chorus. So, a standing ovation for the production for putting Javert there! But then thumbs down for mashing the Thénardiers in the same row.
I simply don't see what they're doing in the front row. First of all, from a vain point of view: if they weren't there, the stage would look so beautiful! Every dead character gets a white version of their dying costume, and Cosette and Marius in their wedding outfits fit the picture. But then there are the Thénardiers with their Beggars at the Feast costumes...
More importantly, though, they're the show's true villains - especially in ÅST, they're twice as vile as the West End Thénardiers I've seen! So why they get a spot among the heroes? I understand, the show's message being of forgiveness, that you don't want to exclude them from the Finale compeletely... But the front row placement doesn't feel right to me.

What else, what else... You see, I'm already struggling!
Well, Marius. I love Marius, he's actually one of my biggest favourite characters in Les Mis. But ÅST's Marius sometimes seems a little too dense.
Again, don't get me wrong! Marius has been played by two brilliant actors, Glenn Daniel Nilsson and now Tomi Metsäketo, and both do the character great justice. The only nitpicky detail I somewhat dislike is how much he hugs Éponine, all the time. I mean, Marius is supposed to be blind, he's not supposed to see that Éponine loves him... But can anyone be that blind? He hugs Éponine more times than I had time to count (though, I admit, him lifting Éponine off the ground was pretty hilarious) and even gives her a kiss on the cheek at one point! That's not the way you treat a friend you're not romantically interested in, is that..? It seems a bit cruel.
Beyond that, though, I've no complaints about ÅST's Marius. He's the most adorable, awkward creature ever, just the way I like to see him!

All that said... Having seen the show again, I love it more than ever, and these little faults aren't really worth anything in the big picture. I'll mourn to see the production go. A movie fan has the movie forever, but the fans of live theatre have to learn to let go... Then again, the perishability is a part of the beauty.

But at least two times more!

Photo by Nana Simelius.

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