‘Les Mis’ for the Third World

DLS Pineda (The Philippine Star) - November 22, 2015 - 9:00am

We recently flew in from Manila to Brisbane to watch the gala night of Les Misérables at the Queensland Performing Arts Center. We stayed at the Stamford Plaza — a five-star hotel — for five days and were given rooms of our own, all 10 of us in our press trip. Seated alone at my bedside while adoring the view of the Brisbane River and the yachts parked by its banks, I felt there was a story here somewhere.

Right there and then, I saw a courtesy sign lying on my bedside table, printed on it was an illustration of the young Cosette, frowning as she held a broomstick taller than her. Above her, the words “PLEASE MAKE UP MY ROOM” were written. And in the hallway 10 minutes later, I met an aging Filipina with her trolley of rolled towels, bedsheets, and disinfectants. She was named Remy, and she told me she hailed from Samar but went to Brisbane because wages were higher. “Ay nako! Life’s bedda’ here, ‘no!” she said with the Australian accent she had acquired after working there for 13 long years.

Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables will be staged in Manila at the Solaire Theatre in March 2016 as part of its Asian tour. I can’t help but feel that it will be swarmed by theater aficionados and plain folk alike. Apart from the fact that Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables was a hit in local cinemas, Manila will be its only leg in the Third World, where the relevance of Les Misérables is impossible to escape. Given that it is a top-tier musical production, the other takeaway for Filipinos would be its story’s timeliness: In many ways, Les Misérables captures the brewing discontent we have today over our country’s unchanged landscape of poverty. It can even be said that Paris in 1821 is Manila today.

Central to the play’s plot is the Barricade where students lead an uprising against their government after the death of their charismatic leader, General Lamarque. More than two decades since the French Revolution, France’s young intellectuals had yet to see the fruits promised by Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité. They believed that the Revolution was merely hijacked by a new set of monarchs, and their small, idealistic group of juvenile intellectuals wanted to take it back “for the people.” It is an all-too-familiar story for us in the Philippines.





“I absolutely believe in fighting for something, in wanting to improve and to give yourself for a cause,” said the baby-faced Chris Durling who plays Enjolras, the leader of the revolutionaries. “And I have no doubt that deep down, Enjolras knew that they were going to be overpowered.”

“But the fact that Enjolras knew that this might not be the turning point that improves living conditions for the people — or at least a stepping stone to the legacy he may leave —I think there’s something very honorable in that,” he said in our interview. Durling, at 32, was obviously absorbed in his role as the bold, young, and dashing Enjolras, who in “One Day More” fearlessly raises the musket, front and center.

One of the methods that make Les Misérables enduring is its avoidance of bearing judgment on any of its characters — that job, it leaves to its audience to discuss. Yet, Victor Hugo and subsequently, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil managed to show each of the characters’ nuances thoroughly. While the play may be allergic to left fists (only right fists are raised), it portrays the revolutionaries — Enjolras, Marius, and company — as likeable and sympathetic characters. Even the saintly Jean Valjean’s archrival, Javert, can’t be said to be plainly evil.

As expected, Valjean and Javert, played respectively by Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee, equally and inseparably shone the brightest. Unlike Russell Crowe’s rendition in the film, Tee is able to portray Javert as the constable who is made infallible by his beliefs, not simply a Javert who is infallible by default. His acting made it clear that what twisted Javert was his proud and unbending adherence to his principles; that his being a menace was no inborn trait. In Tee’s performance, I found no need for a backstory to be told — it simply showed in his acting.

And for the many dimensions of Tee’s foil and adversary, Valjean, Gleeson has come to terms with each one. “For me it’s about redemption and it’s about God. My interpretation is one of a man who’s incredibly vulnerable,” Gleeson said in our chat.

“We see Jean Valjean who’s this strong, animalistic guy who deep down, he’s being set upon and unfairly treated. He’s done wrong himself but at his heart he’s a vulnerable guy. He’s desperately trying to balance the wager between good and evil himself. I think we all are.”

I asked him if he ever got frustrated of Valjean’s emotional frailty. He answered, “Without being vulnerable, there’s no chance at redemption. Without that ability to recognize your weakness, there’s no chance for strength. And it is a massive fault not to recognize your vulnerability.”

While it is true that Les Misérables is relatable to the extent of impassioning me to tears, at the heart of it is a call for change. Outside the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane, the poverty at home remained palpable, what with the undeniable reality of globalized labor. To see and understand Les Misérables, specifically the characterization of its protagonists and antagonists, is to recognize roles. And while we are forced see poverty every day, seeing Les Misérables is a choice. It is, therefore, a call to arms, to hear the people sing, and to sacrifice — a challenge to find strength in our weakness.

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Tickets for Les Misérables at the Solaire Theatre are now on sale via Ticketworld.com.ph or call 891-9999. For information, visit www.lesmis.com.ph.

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