Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir

Review by Linny

A wonderfully indulgent large-scale piece of pure theatricality four hours in length brought by Ariane Mnouchkine of Théâtre du Soleil.

The basis of the work is En Magellanie by Jules Verne, posthumously published in 1909 but also extensively rewritten by his son and with a new name, Les Naufragés du ‘Jonathan’, about, amongst other things, the survivors of a shipwreck on the island of Hosta near Cape Horn and their encounters with the indigenous tribe, a charismatic leader and his socialist ideals. This is a grand metaphor for the Théâtre du Soleil itself which has always practiced socialism in the way it is run.

Théâtre du Soleil has collectively created this piece using the vehicle of silent film in its infancy at the start of the 20th century to present seven key scenes from the Verne story.

This is a story about the fulfillment of socialist ideals at a moment in history when new ideas in all fields of endeavour seemed to promise a dazzling century of human achievement.

The production glories in maximising the full mime talents of the cast all of whom take two or three roles. They are the characters in the Verne story which, here, is about the passengers who, seeking a new life or wealth, embark on a ship bound for Australia and only to be shipwrecked off Hosta.  These characters have been cast from the varied and motley individuals who have been casually and randomly invited by the brother and sister film-maker team to become technicians and actors in their groundbreaking project.  The project is run out of an attic space attached to the restaurant, Félix.

Imagine then this ‘theatre’ space about 25 or 30 metres wide and extending almost as far back.  It lies beneath the skeletal roof structure of a hangar (Lowland Hall, one of the show halls at the Royal Highland Ground).  Transform this space with primitive film-making paraphernalia, beautiful painted flats, full-scale props, including bits of a Habsburg palace from the historic scene at Mayerling, a massive ship’s prow scene,  a blizzard-struck snow landscape of Hosta at the very tip of south America, Queen Victoria meeting Charles Darwin, bits of scenery all brought on or dropped down with a pulley-system of ropes all fully visible and you see the full workings of the show, together with off-stage spaces intended as off-stage rooms where other processes relating to the film take place.  Imagine this diverse team of ‘amateurs’, full of excitement and anticipation starting to make a film conceived on a vast scale and you get boundless energy, brilliant mime and slapstick and the sheer comedy of professionals playing amateurs playing acting roles or other roles.  In blizzard scenes, violently flapping coats and swirling snow are all created by primitive wind machines or simply by hand as explorers, bent double, force their way through snow and wind to a remote destination in Patagonia to negotiate a treaty between Chile and Argentina.

The seven scenes introduce the political backdrop to the turn of the century culminating in the scene on Hosta where the charismatic leader exhorts all to accept the egalitarian ideas of socialism and to create a utopia. This is subverted all too quickly by convicts suggesting alternative and quicker routes to power.  The final scene shows the leader abandoning his grand plans to the smaller but not less heroic, goal of rescuing future shipwrecks and protecting the indigenous tribe from bounty hunters.

A truly enjoyable spectacle.

4/5 WIGS

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