by Danielle Farrow
Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir translates as The Castaways of Mad Hope. This connects to the layers of the play as a motley crew from the Fol Espoir dance hall, charismatic owner down to lowest worker, are led by a pair of film-makers to tell of a shipwreck in Patagonia in 1894. The ship also gains the name Fol Espoir. The process of filming, along with attractions and tensions within the crew, plays out against the 1914 rising tides of the first world war.
The kind of detail that has been built up by many months of rehearsal is already evident as you enter, passing a long dressing room behind net curtains where actors prepare in old world style, except for the occasional prominent modern item, such as a can of hairspray. Those layers have started already.
The stage itself is vast, often danced and run across, and is kept filled with movement and imaginative props and set that take us through Europe, across oceans, to the New World. Curtains and flats for the film backgrounds are also used for surtitles, usually clear (though a little obscure towards the end), and a surtitle screen hangs above the first few rows. The flats are moved quickly, generally within the action. Entertainment abounds, with great physical theatre as well as gentle verbal amusements, in subtle character comedy and obvious slapstick, and music accompanies, often familiar classical pieces wittily chosen, arranged by composer Jean-Jacques Lemêtre, the musician on stage.
Each character is very real as film-maker or drafted-in actor, all then, with appropriate silent film acting styles, creating the intriguing film characters. Socialism and its enemies are explored and a journey through Marxist ideals leads to the hope of a society beyond class warfare. Under the leadership of Ariane Mnouchkine, with Charles-Henri Bradier as main director of this piece, Théâtre du Soleil exemplifies an ensemble, working together to create this play loosely based on a Jules Verne novel completed posthumously by his son. The company creates set and props as well as story, and the way they function brilliantly as a tight group is very clear in their working of the set as well as in the performances themselves.
Though the show lasts just over four hours, with interval, and the story itself is perhaps a little slight for that time, there is always something to hold your attention, with moments of pain and stimuli to thought within the joys of creative endeavour.
Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir definitely offers hope – divinely mad and practically sensible – for both theatre and society. Its subtitle, ‘Aurores’ or ‘Sunrises‘, refers to the coming of light and at the very end there is the intriguing creation of a lighthouse – not a full dawn itself, but a guiding light; not an obvious construction upon the stage, but a focus on that other place where hope can light the way, a focus on us.