Monday, 5 June 2017

Review The Braille Legacy

David Wilkins is a blind and partially deaf print and broadcast journalist who has worked in South Africa and for the BBC in Guernsey and Lincoln.

The Braille Legacy
Original idea, French book and lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon
Music by Jean-Baptiste Saudray
Translation by Ranjit Bolt 

A Touch Of Genius 

Louis Braille pioneered a touch system of raised dots which revolutionised the education of the blind, enabling them to read and write as well as their sighted peers.

As Louis was also a gifted vocalist and musician who invented the Braille music code, a musical would seem to be an extremely appropriate way to celebrate Louis' legacy.

The unique story of Louis' remarkable achievement by the age of 15 allows composer Jean-Baptiste Saudray and book and lyric writer Sébastien Lancrenon to use an approach and style in The Braille Legacy beloved by fans of Lionel Bart's Oliver and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Miserables.

Losing his sight in an accident when very young, Louis becomes a pupil at a workhouse-like cash strapped Parisian boarding school for blind children in the early 19th century.

He is eager to read but the few books available at the school are in embossed print, making it enormously difficult for the blind children to read at all. However merely airing these frustrations in public results in a ban from France's National Library in Paris.

Yet he overcomes his despair and adversity hardens his resolve to find a way to learn and fight the injustice he encounters. Braille has to battle against the bigotry of both individuals and the state, as well as the difficulties of persuading his school to accept the Braille system as an alternative to print.

Inspired by a retired army officer's system of reading messages in the dark devised for soldiers,  Louis is determined to pioneer his own system - still in use by blind people worldwide after 200 years.

The Braille Legacy is based very loosely based on the inventor of Braille's true-life story. Jack Wolfe is a sympathetic proactive Louis telling his own story through song.

Directed by Thom Southerland, The Braille Legacy's narrative is simple, direct and affecting and includes the obligatory tragic hero and villain. Louis' chief ally is Jérôme Pradon's Dr Pignier and his chief adversary Ashley Stillburn's Monsieur Dufau.

Dialogue acts in a supporting role and the music conveys the characters' deepest feelings. The musical as a whole is heartbreaking but leavened throughout by a sense of comedy. And in the end the audience is left with the impression that the good guy won.

But - and it's a big but - The Braille Legacy as a musical presentation of the Louis Braille story is also deeply flawed. The most blatant flaw is that the entire cast are sighted, but telling a story about blind people.

Obviously it is too much logistically to expect a production to hire an entire cast of blind performers. Nevertheless I would contend that, despite appreciating Jack Wolfe's superb performance, a blind performer with equal singing and acting talent would have been more convincing simply because he would understand what it is to be blind and, just as importantly, how blind people are treated by others, adding a more truthful dimension to the performance.

For somebody who has never been blind, it's impossible to truly understand how it feels to be treated as a blind person.

The sighted actors wear blindfolds to convey they cannot see, removing them when they bond with each other and upon the invention of Braille. This is a clever device making a tangible difference for the performers and showing there should be no exclusion for blind people.

However it also puts the sighted audience at a distance from the action, giving it an abstract quality, rather than including them in the world of the blind.

The Braille Legacy also sometimes veers too much away from the life of Louis to make general points regarding disability instead of letting issues emerge organically from the particulars of story.

Again, while appreciating musicals need to have some dramatic licence and simplification, this musical tells a tale that was too black and white. This significantly weakened the plot and at times made the story difficult to believe.

Monsieur Dufau’s view that blindness is a disease to be cured, principally by surgical intervention,  doesn't reflect the true story and is unconvincing.  I was also frustrated that after Louis invents Braille, he effectively melts into the background, becoming a minor character.

The musical then foregrounds a story of blind children vanishing for fiendish experiments and inserts what appears to be an argument about whether blindness should be understood as an illness or a simple variation of the human condition.

This unbalances a musical that begins well with an exploration of Louis Braille's unique story but has a weak and unconvincing finale.

Those who have seen The Braille Legacy may be pleased to know there were never any experiments to find "a cure for blindness" at the National Institute for Blind Youth.  Monsieur Dufau did exist but no children vanished from the school when it was under his care.

Of course The Braille Legacy is a fictional dramatisation, never intended as an accurate portrayal of The National Institute for Blind Youth in 19th century France.  I still enjoyed the performances and the rousing and touching songs.

I cannot ignore the lack of visually impaired and blind actors and believe the musical's book to be sometimes misguided. Yet this musical also powerfully conveys the legacy of Louis Braille and the debt the blind population owes to him. I give an amber light for a flawed but invigorating production.

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