Victor Hugo at Villers-la-Ville until August 16 and Le Malade Imaginaire at Villers-la-Ville until August 8.


The 12th-century abbey of Villers-la-Ville in Belgium has a tradition of open air summer theatre that dates back more than a hundred years – but the tradition is not quite unbroken.

On the July night I went to watch Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire, the performance was cancelled because of rain – just as much a threat to Belgian summer theatre as to British.

In any case, as abbey staff admitted, a satire on the theme of hypochondria, however spectacular the performance, is not the most apposite choice for the summer of 2015 when Belgium has been busy marking the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo.

More fitting would be an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables, last performed at Villers-la-Ville in 2002.

This year, Les Miserables and Hugo at least get very reverent mention in an exhibition, researched by Belgian Hugo scholar Jean Lacroix, on the role of the abbey in inspiring this giant of French literature, as well as other artists.

As the exhibition’s display of manuscripts and letters conveys, Hugo might have spent more time at Villers-la-Ville, except the damp climate disagreed with him.  Instead, he stayed in Brussels and in Waterloo, respectively around 20 and 10 miles away.

While the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo provides material for an enormous chapter of Les Miserables, the abbey itself, with its network of cramped damp dungeons, inspired his descriptions of the prison where the miserable ones are detained.

Hugo also paid more romantic, but still unsettling tribute to the abbey in his poem Dans les Ruines d’une Abbaye (in the ruins of an abbey), set to music by Gabriel Faure.  Hugo sent the royalties paid by Faure to Garibaldi to further his efforts to unite Italy.

The writer regarded as Belgium’s equivalent of Victor Hugo is Emile Verhaeren, whose work Le Cloitre (the Cloister) was the first open air spectacle at Villers-la-Ville in 1910.

After that, the stage among the ruined arches and choirs went dark until 1987 when theatre producers DEL Diffusion began creating works for Villers-la-Ville, starting with Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode’s account of Barabbas.

Since then, performances, ranging from Shakespeare to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to Moliere, have taken place every summer, weather permitting.

Barbara Lewis © 2015.

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