TO WTINESS a Theatre du Soleil production is to experience one of the most unique and overwhelming forms of theatre available.
A Parisian avant-garde ensemble who bestow an abstract, socialist ethos, their International Festival presentation of Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores) – translated, The Castaways of the Fol Espoir (Sunrises) – hasn’t been seen in the UK for more than 20 years. Therefore, the sense of anticipation hovering around Lowland Hall was eager to say the least.
Prior to the main event, actors (in character) mingled with awaiting patrons, urging them to enter the cabaret and observe – as is company tradition – onstage preparation, as well as the rest of the cast from behind veiled curtains.
Then everyone sat down on hard, uncomfortable plastic seats for the next four hours.
Set within the attic of a French restaurant, Fol Espoir, a bunch of passionate artisans (and some of the bistro’s staff) are in the midst of filming their sweet ‘n’ sour Utopian-Socialist flick, using innovative silent-movie techniques as the First World War looms. Tension, though, is already mounting between the cast and crew. News eventually comes through that the Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, has taken the assassin’s bullet, and there’s growing concern that the picture won’t be completed at all.
A gargantuan effort co-ordinated with outstanding precision and immense attention to detail, this “film” within a play is simply amazing to watch. The airport hangar-like venue certainly embodies the feel of an early 20th-century film studio. Yet, at 240 minutes long, it may test the concentration span of the most ardent spectator. It didn’t help that the subtitles were slightly out of focus and true to the (ornamental) fonts of the depicted era, either. Still, you might want to bring a cushion where the seating is concerned.
Such criticism may be akin to complaining about the state of one’s hotel whilst on a lavish, paradisiac holiday of historical interest. Nevertheless, director Ariane Mnouchkine’s classique – inspired by Jules Verne’s 1897 novel Magellania – is a genuinely refreshing, uplifting antidote to conventional theatre practices.
Rating: * * * *