The Grinning Man: Origins

Bristol Old Vic

By The Space

Hugo Victor 1802-1885LIFE Photo Collection

In April 1869, the French poet, novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo published a novel titled, The Man Who Laughs.

A key figure in the Romantic movement, Hugo is probably best known for his novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which have both gone on to become record-breaking adaptations on stage and screen.

Lit. Hugo - "The Laughing Man"LIFE Photo Collection

The Man Who Laughs is set in England in the 1680s and 1700s during the reigns of James II and Queen Anne and draws parallels to France’s political situation under Louis-Philippe.

Hugo wrote it while living in exile in the Channel Islands due to the controversial political content of his previous novels.

Lit. Hugo - "The Laughing Man"LIFE Photo Collection

The story centres on a young nobleman called Gwynplaine who was disfigured as a child, forced to live with a mutilated face that is stuck in a permanent grin.

The story centres on a young nobleman called Gwynplaine who was disfigured as a child, forced to live with a mutilated face that is stuck in a permanent grin.

Lit. Hugo - "The Laughing Man"LIFE Photo Collection

Hugo makes a parallel between the mutilation of one man and of human experience, criticising the nobility which resorts to violence and oppression and those who submit to it.

Lit. Hugo - "The Laughing Man"LIFE Photo Collection

The Man Who Laughs takes the timeless trope of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and redefines it, presenting a slow-paced drama which offers a human insight into the historical era and mindset of Hugo’s life.

Still from Paul Leni's film 'The Man Who Laughs'The Space

Hugo’s novel influenced countless adaptations on stage, screen and in popular culture, most notably serving as inspiration for DC Comics’ character The Joker, after ‘Batman’-creators Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson saw Conrad Veidt play Gwynplaine in a 1928 silent film adaptation.

Toby Olié, Tom Morris and Finn Caldwell in The Grinning Man rehearsals (2016) by Simon AnnandThe Space

While working on another show with director Tom Morris, the composer Marc Teitler suggested The Man Who Laughs as a potential future project.

The world of Victor Hugo was so powerful, magical and distinctive that Tom Morris, Marc Teitler and collaborator Tom Phillips began to explore it as a possible musical.

Carl Gros (writer) in rehearsals for The Grinning Man by Simon AnnandThe Space

The three of them collaborated with writer Carl Grose, who is known for his wild humour and dark imagination, to bring the story to life and after 5 years of research and development, The Grinning Man was born.

Louis Maskell (Grinpayne) and Company in The Grinning Man (2016) by Simon AnnandThe Space

The musical uses the novel as a starting point: it contains three strands which interweave – a love story between the disfigured hero and the blind girl, the story of his quest to find out how he came to be disfigured, and the ‘messiah’ story, which demonstrates the extraordinary and transforming effect he has on those who see him.

LIFE Photo Collection

As Carl was drafting the script, it became clear to the creative team that their version of the story was set in an imaginary Bristol, separated from present-day by a series of historical accidents now lost in the mists of time.

A world in which, at some point in the late Middle ages, Bristol became England’s first city, where a merciless feudal rule had been enforced by a despot called King Clarence.

The Grinning Man Production still (2016) by Simon AnnandThe Space

The Grinning Man premiered at Bristol Old Vic in 2016 as part of the theatre’s 250th anniversary season.

Stuart Neal (Dirry Moir) and Louis Maskell (Grinpayne) in The Grinning Man by Simon AnnandThe Space

Following a flurry of critical acclaim, it quickly transferred to London’s West End where it played at Trafalgar Studios for an extended run.

Crew filming for The Grinning Man by Christina BloomThe Space

At the penultimate performance of The Grinning Man, the actor and director Andy Serkis loved the musical so much, he wanted to turn it into a motion-captured piece with his production company The Imaginarium.

The company of The Grinning Man at Imaginarium Studios by Christina BloomThe Space

By capturing the production using motion-capture, it enables audiences to witness the musical in a whole new way using augmented-reality headsets.

The Grinning Man | Bringing it to life in Augmented Reality w/ Andy Serkis | Bristol Old Vic At HomeThe Space

The plan is for viewers to experience the musical using portable equipment created by Magic Leap, a startup company specialising in bringing physical and digital worlds together, enabling audiences to wander around the stage in the middle of performance, taking in the action from all angels.

Crew filming for The Grinning Man by Christina BloomThe Space

This new technology will also allow people who are unable to attend the theatre for whatever reason to take in the action from home. It’s an exciting development, paving the way for the future of theatre!

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