“The Bonsoir Diaries” by Kumar de Silva is a cocktail of chapters, bursting at their seams with pithy asides, a trail of faux pas, and tit-bits from behind the scenes, marinated with anecdotes and drizzled with nostalgia, revealing everything you never saw on your favourite television show…from the ‘80s through the ‘90s into 2000.
When French novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote his hugely successful epic novel Les Misérables, not in his wildest dreams would he ever have realised that this story would inspire successive stage and film versions down the years.
Two centuries later, characters such as the absurdly criminalised Valjean, the street urchin Gavroche, the rascally innkeeper Thénardier, the implacable Agent de Police Javert, and the pitiful figure of the prostitute Fantine and her daughter Cosette have all entered the pantheon of literary dramatis personae.
Colombo’s theatre lovers were privileged when Jerome L. de Silva and his enthusiastic band of The Workshop Players decided to do Les Mis the musical at the Lionel Wendt in Colombo in October 1996.
It had a multiple-night run and ran to packed and highly appreciative houses. Among the large cast, averaging 19 or 20 years, were Jehan Aloysius, Sanjeev Jayaratnam, Kevin Franke, Michael Holsinger, Ruwanthi de Chickera, and Samantha de Silva Wijeratne, all of whom are well-known names today in their respective spheres of work.
We at Bonsoir jumped at the idea of doing a special programme on this much-loved story turned into a much-loved musical. And so we packed our camera and cables and whatnots, and made our pilgrimage to the Wendt.
The story was gripping and the songs were haunting. We followed the cast as they went through their paces under the critically watchful eye and masterly direction of JLdeS. The performances were brilliant. They were tight, well paced, and kept the audiences spellbound. This was stagecraft and vocal virtuosity at their very best.
Surein de Silva Wijeyeratne, one of the famous de Silva Wijeyeratne siblings, recalled playing 11 different characters throughout the production, from student, revolutionary, and drunkard to pervert, farmer, ghost, and more. His francophone Francophile sister Samantha was also everywhere in the show, from factory woman and grieving widow to whore and whatnot.
Two performances that were stellar, in my opinion, were those of Jehan Aloysius (19) as the protagonist, Jean Valjean, and Sanjeev Jeyaratnam (26) as Inspecteur Javert. These were two young men, playing characters much, much older than their real selves.
And so for several nights at the Wendt, Colombo’s theatre lovers lived through a historical time warp as they were transported to early 19th-Century Paris and literally experienced, firsthand, life the way it was lived in the French capital. Les Mis was such a hit that it had a successful rerun four months later in February 1997, once again to packed and highly appreciative houses.
Yes, we were enthralled by the performance; we were awed by acting; we were inspired by the singing, but how many in the audience those multiple nights at the Lionel Wendt ever realised the gigantic effort that went on back stage and off stage (and even on stage at times)? I refer to the crew. There were many of them, about 40 in all, ensuring that the split-second timing went to perfection and it very well did.
This was the second time that The Workshop Players was using a rotating stage, the first being for Cats in 1994. Surein de Silva Wijeyeratne recalls thus: “The one we used for Les Mis was huge! It was almost the length and width of the entire Lionel Wendt stage. The challenge here was we had no clue how to technically build or even power such a monstrosity. We had to have seven or eight guys wearing canvas gloves, placed in the two feet available UNDER this contraption, pulling and pushing with all their might!
“…I feel proud to be able to say that I died on those barricades of France. A feeling very close to patriotism! It was the highlight of the show for us. Sounds, smoke surrounding us, music in our ears, ‘guns’ in our hands, and a song in our hearts. We all took extra care to make each of our deaths as ‘dramatic’ as possible…either falling or landing in deathly looking poses on the barricades, some of us hanging upside down for extra effect. One famous line shouted at us by Jerome during our rehearsals was: ‘Put more life into your deaths.’”
PS 01: On a visit to Paris, a month after Les Mis hit Colombo, in all enthusiasm, I remember trying to locate the house at No. 55, rue Plumet which had been rented by Jean Valjean under the assumed name of Ultime Fauchelevent, and in which he had housed Cosette. My quest proved futile. The passage of time had taken its toll. It had disappeared from sight.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.