France, 1803: Louis-Hector Berlioz was born into a family that would ignore his misfit intellect and force him to emulate the life of his father.
At 21 he abandoned his family’s ideals and decided instead to pursue his passion for music.
In 1827 at the Odeon Theatre in Paris, amid his studies and new-found love for theatre he saw a production of Hamlet. It was there he first set eyes upon the actor Harriet Smithson. So began his obsessive love.
Determined to know Harriet, Berlioz continuously contacted her with impassioned letters of admiration. She did not reply.
“You don’t know what love is,” Berlioz wrote to a friend. “For you it’s not that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything”.
Back then, this might have seemed like a man in love. Now, it could be no clearer: these were the words of a narcissistic, controlling and abusive man. It was in this flood of gripping obsession that Berlioz was inspired to write his Symphonie Fantastique, the story in music of a pained artist haunted by the vision of his ‘Beloved’, a perfect and seemingly unattainable woman.
In a team of queer creators we’ve been able to discover a different kind of truth.
Stepping into the rehearsal room on our first day, we were immediately met with a drive to transform this narrative; to move beyond the layers of the white cisgender male experience and explore the story through the being of queerness.
Currently, I am exploring my own idea of self through our protagonist. This show has given me the space to grow as person through the character – albeit a problematic one. I was concerned about a portrayal that might vilify yet another gender queer character, but I have realised that I am diving into a mind of toxic masculinity, privilege, manipulation and a deterioration of sense of self.
Toxic behaviour has the capability to exist in us all, and Symphonie Fantastique has pushed us to question this. It is a story of complexity, of party culture, of drug use, mental health and violence. But also, crucially, Queer theatre holds opportunity for change. We need to make room for people to take up space and share stories that have yet to be truly honoured. I walk out of the rehearsal room every day having learned something new.
I don’t have all the answers yet – about the character or myself – and that’s what’s most exciting. It is a difficult act to sit in discomfort; Symphonie Fantastique has found that. We’ve entered into icky territory, but in discomfort lies an activeness, a purpose. Nothing truly spectacular can come from being comfortable.
We need to have conversations, especially those of us with different relationships to privilege, about the representation we see on our stages. We need to acknowledge the inherent white, cis, thin and able-bodied privilege in this space, and how these things are weaponised. It is up to us to continue to learn more, understand deeper and be better. It is integral that theatre not only represents but celebrates different bodies and experiences.
Symphonie Fantastique is ready. I am ready. The Artist, unclear. So I guess that just leaves one more person – you.