We sat down with Olivier-nominated actor Stewart Clarke, who is currently playing Javert in Les Misérables at the Sondheim Theatre, to talk about his role in the show and his experience so far.
Q. Tell us about Les Mis?
A. The show is based on the novel by Victor Hugo, an epic novel, set in the 1800s, around the time of The June Rebellion.
The show is based around this time period of upheaval in France, specifically this community in uprising. There’s a group of students whose aims are cutting into a lot of Marxist ideals, like workers’ rights and fighting back against the Bourgeoisie. Les Mis is set amongst this backdrop, it’s very sort of French Dickensian, this magnifying glass on the working class and their struggles.
Amongst all of that is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict, who breaks parole, runs away, starts a brand new life, with the help of a kind bishop, who tells him he must rethink his life and become an honest man, and he goes on to do that.
However, he is relentlessly pursued by his parole officer, a man of the law, a beacon of justice, which is Javert, the character that I play. Javert spends about 30 years chasing Jean Valjean across France desperately trying to stick to his ideals, that the law is the only truth, and if you break it, then you must pay. It’s an incredibly emotional story of humanity – about whether you can change your fundamental nature.
Although that’s the kind of central story, it’s so epic, there’s so much going on. There’s a love story, in amongst the student rebellion, you’ve got Fantine the tragic mother figure, there’s the pickpocket opportunists, the Thénardiers. There is no other show like it, Les Mis tells a wonderful story.
Q. Tell us a bit more about the character you play, Javert, and the challenges you came across when playing this role?
A. He’s a very tricky character. The core concept of his character is his unchanging belief, he’s so resolute in his ideals, that people can’t change that he sort of rejects the idea of a character arc.
The question then, is how do you find the humanity in this character? So much of it for me was mined from his relationship with God, and the fact that he feels like he can have a discourse with God. For Javert, he and God, they’re a partnership, he’s carrying out God’s will. Finding those little nuggets of humanity and genuine feeling within him, makes portraying a character who outwardly seems quite uncaring and unfeeling more possible.
Q. What are your biggest highlights from the show?
A. I think so often when you’re in a show, especially when you’re playing quite an isolated character, its easy to lose track of the wider show. I think one of the really beautiful things in this process, was actually watching the show before I joined the cast.
To sit there in the audience and really take it in – the incredible set design, the full ensemble – to get a sense of that before going in means that when you go out on stage you can always remind yourself that you’re part of something spectacular.
It was really emotional, especially towards the end of the show, but to feel like you’ll be part of telling that story has been a real highlight of the process for sure.
Having the opportunity to go out there on a West End stage each night and sing such timeless songs – it’s an honour and a privilege.
No matter how tired I am, you come off stage with a great sense of achievement and pride that you are getting the opportunity to perform this incredible material. It’s such a joy.
Q. What are the physical challenges you have faced when playing Javert?
A. It’s not the most physical show I’ve done in terms of dance or movement. I would say in terms of costume, Javert wears a lot of heavy coats, and especially in the summer, that is physically exhausting, just dragging around these incredibly large coats.
But I would say the thing that’s exhausting is the emotional journey, and you always forget how much it takes out of you. Javert goes on quite an intense journey, and you get to the end and you sit in your dressing room and you realise how it drains you in an emotional sense.
There’s a great deal of big numbers to sing, you’re constantly juggling so much with the character, keeping your voice healthy, keeping your body healthy, getting sleep when you can. I try and fit in a nap whenever I get the chance.
Q. Why do you think the show is a success?
A. I do think there’s nothing else like it. I don’t think you would see something like Les Mis now, where an epic novel with so many things going on is translated into a musical.
I think that’s another reason why people probably want to hold onto it, because they probably think if we let this go then there won’t be another show of that scale. Just in terms of the content of Les Mis, I think the characters are so human, so relatable, and because there are so many characters, I think there’s always going to be a character that you hold onto.
I think the show and the songs from the show have become part of the cultural fabric now, people know these songs. There’s something to that familiarity and it’s a tribute to the source material that people continue to connect with it, despite the fact that it’s set in 1832 in revolutionary France.
I would just recommend coming to see it, whether you saw it a long time ago or whether you’ve never seen it. We’ve got a really exciting cast and this slightly new production, that was revamped in 2019, just modernises things a little. It’s a show that deserves to be seen.