Théâtre du Soleil’s ‘Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir’ is a production on a massive scale, perfect for the Lowland Hall at the Royal Highland Centre that the Edinburgh International Festival has transformed into a theatre space this August.
“This production is loosely based on a Jules Vernes story”, explains Juliana Carneiro, one of the leads in the show, who has worked with the Paris-based Théâtre du Soleil and its co-founder, director Ariane Mnouchkine, for over two decades. “It’s a story about a group of people at the turn of the last Century who set sail from England to Australia to start a new life, but who never arrive, their ship being run aground on Cape Horn. Those who survive set about building a new society where they land, some motivated by socialist ideals, though other motives start to loom as well”.
Though the Vernes-inspired story of survival and new society is actually just one strand of ‘Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir’, which has a play-within-a-play element to it too (well, technically a film-within-a-play). The story unfolds through the eyes of two aspiring early 20th Century film-makers who are trying to capture the Vernes tale on an early motion picture camera. “It’s a brother and sister who are making this film”, Juliana adds, “and I play the sister. As that character I hold a camera throughout a lot of the proceedings!”
The sister is actually one of four characters Juliana portrays in the production, because, as is customary for Théâtre du Soleil shows, each actor has multiple parts. “We all play more than one character” Juliana says, “which can be demanding, though it is something we are all used to doing. Once each performance begins, it moves very fast, and a lot of energy is required, both on stage and off, as some high-speed costume changes occur. But in some ways the speed of it all is good for us – it actually reduces the anxieties of performing, because you really don’t have any time to think”.
“It is an intense experience to perform in a production like this one”, she continues, “but we rehearse for nearly a year when creating these shows, and that helps a lot; you really feel part of the character and the story by the time the piece finally opens on stage”. The eleven months of rehearsals is also characteristic of the Théâtre du Soleil approach, where the whole company is involved in devising and developing any one piece.
How much is pre-prepared when the actors first enter Ariane’s rehearsal room? “It depends. If it’s an existing play, then we each read the script individually before we begin. But then, when we come together, we immediately start performing in rehearsals, script in hand, all of us inputting on how the production might develop. We don’t sit around a table and read through the script, the performance element is there from the start, and Ariane encourages us to propose where we take the play, and to employ our imaginations throughout the creative process”.
On a piece like ‘Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir’ there is even more freedom for the actors involved. “We had this little Jules Verne book as a starting point, and Ariane arrived with the film concept, of imagining what it would have been like at the start of the 20th Century, when the film industry was just emerging, for two people to embark on a film project like this, utilising the Vernes story. So we each read the story, and someone made a prop camera, and we began to develop the piece from that basic idea”.
These days the whole creative process that the Théâtre du Soleil team embark on is filmed throughout, with the director and her cast watching each stage back. “We can look at what we’ve done” Juliana explains, “and decide what elements we should keep and develop further. Only about a third of what we create in the rehearsal room probably makes it into the final piece, but that process adds so much more to the experience and the production you will see”.
Théâtre du Soleil are renowned for creating very physical and visual works, and that is particularly true with ‘Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir’. “We didn’t set out to choreograph the piece”, Juliana says, “but there are so many people on stage, and at times things move so fast, that it becomes necessary to consider and plan the movement that occurs within the piece, which sometimes almost feels like a dance. As I said, there is a lot of energy in this production”.
This is Juliana’s first time performing as part of the Edinburgh Festival. “We are so pleased to be here” she says, having arrived in the city less than 24 hours earlier, “we have heard so much, and have so much to see. It’s a thrill to be at this festival”. And with a production of this scale and ambition, I suspect Juliana’s debut appearance in Edinburgh will be long remembered.
Théâtre du Soleil’s ‘Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir’ was performed at the Royal Highland Centre at Edinburgh International Festival 2012.