Co-produced French classic ‘Les Misérables’ to dazzle Chinese audiences
Shared stage
Published: Jan 17, 2024 10:44 PM
Performers rehearse the Chinese edition of <em>Les Misérables</em> Photo: Courtesy of Magnificent Culture

Performers rehearse the Chinese edition of Les Misérables Photo: Courtesy of Magnificent Culture

A metal bed sits in the middle of the rehearsal stage. Chinese actor Liu Ye stands next to it, sometimes whispering and sometimes running around the bed. With days left before the preview of the Chinese edition of French classic Les Misérables in Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province on Friday and Saturday, he has been rehearsing for his role Jean Valjean, a convict who spent 19 years in prison just for stealing a piece of bread for his sister's starving children. 

"Jean Valjean strode to the counter, opened the cabinet and the drawer, seeing the silverware and plates inside. He put those things into his backpack, regardless of the noise he made…"

Liu tells the story of Jean Valjean at a very fast speed as sometimes he is Jean Valjean himself, and sometimes he is the narrator. As many as eight pages of lines, dense, coherent, and without pauses, present dramatic tension at the beginning of the play, posing the ultimate challenge for actors.

"The protagonist of Les Misérables is absolutely Jean Valjean. We needed Liu Ye to portray Jean Valjean. Through this role, a person's heart can be faithfully conveyed to everyone. And Liu did that as a great actor," French director Jean Bellorini told the Global Times. 

In his eyes, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is not only an epic portraying France's difficult times but also Jean Valjean's personal spiritual epic, which can be understood and shared beyond borders, languages and cultures, transcending time.

With the beauty of language in such literary works, it shows the truth and goodness of human nature. 

"This is why we are still rehearing this work today, and why we stage it to commemorate the great occasion that is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France," he noted. 

French director Jean Bellorini oversees a rehearsal of the the Chinese edition of <em>Les Misérables</em>. Photo: Li Hao/GT

French director Jean Bellorini oversees a rehearsal of the the Chinese edition of Les Misérables. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Kindness and forgiveness

Convinced by French producer Anais Martane and Chinese artistic director Wang Keran from entertainment company Magnificent Culture, the renowned French director accepted the offer to present the Chinese version of Les Misérables with a full cast of Chinese actors and actresses, including Liu. 

After the preview in Suzhou, the drama will tour to Beijing for its grand premiere from January 26 to 28 as part of the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Chinese-French diplomatic relations. Tickets for the three performances sold out right after sales started in July 2023. 

Before this, Bellorini had adapted Les Misérables for the stage under the title Tempête sous un crâne (Tempest in a Skull), and Paroles Gelées (Frozen Words) based on the work from François Rabelais, which won him the Molière Prize for best direction. Since 2020, he has been director of the prestigious TNP (Théâtre National Populaire). 

He read Les Misérables as a child, which was also the first long novel with many twists and turns that he had finished. Since the novel, considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, was first published in 1862, it has been popularized through numerous adaptations such as films, TV series and works of the stage, including a musical, influencing millions of readers across the world, even people in China like Liu. 

"I have always hoped to do something special after turning 40. Over the years, I have been engaged in cultural exchanges between China and France. After learning about the drama, I realized that I wanted to do it," said Liu. 

One of China's top actors, he has starred in a number of films like City of Life and Death (2009), Saving Mr Wu (2015), Air Strike (2018) and Island Keeper (2021).

At the age of 8 or 9, Liu read the graphic novel version of Les Misérables. He even dreamed of playing the role of Jean Valjean while in college. Now, he has finally realized his dream with the upcoming drama. 

"Being able to portray a character like Jean Valjean is a career point of pride for any actor," Liu said. 

Bellorini did not rewrite the ­characters' dialogue, but used ­different fragments from the original work instead. Therefore, all the lines in the play come from Hugo's original novel. 

"A classic is a classic. Staging such classic lies in various theatrical means and skills as well as music and narrating," he said. "Chinese actors including Liu did a great job to present this story in Chinese, using their understanding of human nature and kindness."

Liu said that the work begins with suffering and ends with redemption, delivering something very warm - love. For Jean Valjean, it is a story about "self-salvation, forgiveness and love," which teaches people to "be kind and love." 

In the mind of artistic director Wang Keran, the Chinese version of Les Misérables can "run into the audiences' ears like water and become a true work of art that tells people how to do good things."

French producer Anais Martane Photo: Li Hao/GT

French producer Anais Martane Photo: Li Hao/GT

Rising above the character 
For young Chinese actress Zhang Keying, being able to play both Fantine and ­Cosette, a mother and a daughter, is a big challenge as she needed to "abandon my past acting style and take a complete different approach."

Director Bellorini follows German playwright Bertolt Brecht's system in terms of directing style, which makes broad use of the "defamiliarization effect" and "alienation method." 

When standing in front of audiences, the actor sometimes blends into the character, rises above the character, and sometimes controls the character. This kind of dramatic performance requires actors and actresses to have more experience and skill.

"Of course, the pressure is very high, but it also gives me motivation, which forces me to keep learning and improving shaping different characters," said Zhang. 

The director is also using various ways to push the actors' limits. From the Chinese actors, Bellorini also gained inspiration every day. 

For him, acting is not only about "acting" itself, but also "the pursuit of the integration of the actor and the role. When we can't tell the actor from the role, then this is the perfect moment we are looking for."

He is known in France for the integration of music and stage performance, so it is the same this time. He has arranged singing and live music as well as designed theme music for every main character in the stage work. 

"Music can make our hearts tremble as this universal language eliminates communication barriers. It connects our hearts together, conveys our emotions to the audience, and conveys the themes in Hugo's works to everyone. I hope that the melody will echo in their minds after walking out of the theaters," said Bellorini, who also included rich Chinese elements such as Kunqu Opera and Pingtan, traditional storytelling and ballad singing in the Suzhou dialect. 

For producer Martane, working on such a project involving China and France cultural exchanges is something that she has dreamed of since coming to China in the 2000s. Martane, who is Liu's wife, has worked on a number of cultural projects bridging China and France, including documentaries, movies and theater works. 

Some of her friends have marveled at the current ambitious project. She just said that it is "something very natural" as Chinese people are "very friendly and are always curious about the world." 

They want to see the world's different theater works as well as perform their own theater productions at the world's various theater festivals such as the Edinburgh Festival in the UK and Festival d'Avignon in France, she noted.

More and more Chinese theater directors and actors are bringing their productions to these festivals. 

Bellorini has seen Chinese drama works at the Festival d'Avignon in France, and he is looking forward to cooperating with Chinese director Meng Jinghui in the future.

The Suzhou Bay Grand Theater, where the Chinese edition of <em>Les Misérables</em> will be performed from January 26 to 28, 2024 Photo: VCG

The Suzhou Bay Grand Theater, where the Chinese edition of Les Misérables will be performed Photo: VCG

Common views and belief

In November 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on French President Emmanuel Macron to carry forward the traditional China-France friendship and push relations to a new level. 

Both countries are willing to treat the 60th anniversary as an opportunity to intensify high-level exchanges with each other and deepen exchanges and cooperation in fields like education, culture and scientific research, according to a phone call between the two leaders. 

China and France have a long history and friendship in cultural and people-to-people exchanges and their exchanges and mutual learning can be seen a model for exchanges between China and Europe and exchanges with global civilizations.

The Le Festival Croisements has seen active cultural exchanges between China and France in the areas of fine arts, performing arts and more for a dozen years. Renowned Chinese artists such as Fan Zeng and Wu Weishan all have close connections with France and play active roles in people-to-people exchanges. 

The summer of 2023 in France meant a lot for Liu Nuoyi and Liu Nina, Liu and Martane's children, as the two staged their own version of Flowers in the Mirror in Avignon and Paris with other Chinese children. The stage production was inspired by the classic Chinese fantasy novel written by novelist Li Ruzhen in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and adds a sense of fairy-tale enchantment to the original text. 

The protagonist is meant to be a flower fairy, who descends to the mortal world as the fisher girl Tang Xiaoshan. Tang then goes on a series of adventures to the Country of Black Teeth, the Country of Two-faced People, as well as many other countries, with her uncle Lin Zhiyang in search of lost flowers. 

Passing down the torch from generation to generation, the peoples from the two countries, such as these children, are carrying the flame of mutual learning and cultural exchanges.

"In China, everything is possible and it is full of opportunities," Martane told the Global Times, noting that she hopes to introduce more Chinese theater productions to France and stage more French dramas in China. 

Love and be loved, kindness and courage are the foundation of human nature. It is the power of love and courage to break through the fog that Wang wanted to express in Les Misérables

"Theater is the stage for China and France to express human civilization. Mutual learning and exchanges among civilizations are based on our common view of human nature and belief in the power of drama."