Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Terence Rattigan and John Gielgud. Queanbeyan City Council production, edited and directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher.  Set design: Brian Sudding; Costume design: Miriam Miley-Read; Lighting design: Hamish McConchie; Sound design: James McPherson.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, February 5-16, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 5

There’s a potentially interesting concept behind this production which, unfortunately, fails in its execution for the most part.  The part where it succeeds is, ironically enough, at the very end when the execution takes place.

The production seems to have been closely based on the version and style which Spreadbury-Maher presented at the King’s Head Theatre in London last year.  There were mixed reviews in London.  Mine is mixed, too.

Theatrical quality proved to be a problem, even though individual actors generally caught the modernist style well – especially Laura Dawson (in the main role of Lucie Manette as well as in various smaller parts), Peter Dark (as Jervis Lorry), and Calen Robinson (in the central role of Sydney Carton).

The difficulty was that in attempting to use a modern ‘presentational’ style in the staging and acting for a script in which Rattigan had maintained the mid-nineteenth century atmosphere created by Dickens, Spreadbury-Maher ended up making us feel unhappily tense.  Not about the sense of foreboding and approaching chaos in Dickens’ dramatic romantic story, but because of our having to absorb scenes where, for example, actors moved from London to Dover by miming bumping up and down in a stagecoach, dressed in today’s jeans and gym pants, or chains and black leather, or sometimes costumes from an 18th Century courtroom, where judges and solicitors spoke via microphones and loudhailers.  In between scenes, and sometimes during a transition period, we were shaken out of the historical period by highly-amplified recordings of songs by recently modern performers, such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

It is true that Dickens’ original work is highly melodramatic and needs to be stylised on stage rather than played naturalistically, but it was difficult to see what Spreadbury-Maher’s intention was.  Finally, literally in the last scene, simplicity worked as we came to understand what Sydney Carton was going to do, in concert with Jervis Lorry as he cottoned on, and the two scenes in parallel played out to their tragic end.

Unfortunately, immediately, modern pop burst upon us before we could fully savour the feeling.  Though it was exciting, and led to an extended curtain call, it seemed to me to be out of context.  Were we supposed to watch and forget the reason Dickens wrote his novel?

On that point, this edited version concentrated so much on the love triangle between Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay (played nicely by Daniel Greiss) and Sydney Carton that the essential part of Dickens’ story about the two cities – London and Paris in the throes of the French Revolution – became a minor concern.  I think the lyrics of some of the songs that were played were meant to make us think about the social consequences of a failing society, and I can see the difficulty of staging the revolutionary scenes (an earlier version, according to Spreadbury-Maher’s notes had a cast of 40 and ran for three and a half hours), but Dickens – looking back from 1859 – was concerned to show that injustice was bad enough at the best of times, but so much more intolerable without the rule of law.

These ideas were here, but broken up into small chunks rather than developed smoothly.  The result also was that the performances, though good in parts, did not hang together very well, and often the pacing – or the rhythm of the play – was just too slow and cumbersome.

However, it is still interesting in a quirky way, and the last scene (before the pop) is worth waiting for.