Notes on Great Expectations at Wimbledon Library (2016)


* YOU ONLY HAVE UNTIL DECEMBER 18TH TO SEE THIS, and I really recommend you do!

* This production has found Trevor Nunn’s epic Nicholas Nickleby like some people find Jesus, and it’s working pretty well. I love that production, and thus another in that tradition, which has not been built upon as it ought to have been, works great for me. I think both Nunn’s Nickleby and this Great Expectations demonstrate a way of adapting Dickens that’s too often passed over. What we mostly see, in the endless bad adaptations that waste Gillian Anderson et al’s talent and time, is a totalising, slavishly naturalistic ‘period piece’ gaze. This renders not only the texts in question internally homogenous (turning the lovely and varying textures of Dickens into a smooth, unappetising thin paste, like an English person’s inevitably tragic attempt to make soup), but every Dickens book (all of which have their own distinct tones and moods) essentially the same. Worse still, such a gaze renders every ‘period’ piece from Dickens to Downton equally samey. The Hollow Crown is shot like Bleak House is shot like Parade’s End, essentially.

Naturalism is of course far from the only way to represent life, so it’s nice to see this theatrical production making good use of the magic of its particular mode both to achieve a greater sympathy with the hyper-reality of the source text and to produce something much richer than I’m used to getting from filmed adaptations.

* The blending of dialogue and prose from the original allows the text room, refuses to relinquish Dickens’ power and multifaceted appeal.

* The library venue was fun.

* I haven’t actually read this one! I did see a puppet version once, performed with the original Victorian toy theatre from Pollock’s. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a tiny puppet Miss Havisham die in a horrible conflagration: you are not living now.

* The stripped down lighting and blend of (I believe?) recorded and live-voice sound effects was very effective. The physicality and work with small props really show what a company can do with a small space and a limited budget. If I saw this at the Fringe it would probably rank as one of the strongest offerings (and that’s a highly competitive context!). But this staging also relies on the company to be on beat in order to generate its effects, and I felt they could have been a bit stricter about that. Without the huge cast Nunn relied on to create his London (which this show strongly draws on, especially for Pip’s big initial entrance), for example, they people on stage need to be Rockette-disciplined in order for the simultaneous and/or handed-over vocal and physical effects not to look shoddy. Nothing is seriously harmed by the cast’s moments of imprecision, but there were times where they were all supposed to say a word in unison (‘Pip’, for example), and it was a little sloppy. Y’all ain’t singin’ a round here.

Not to denigrate a largely well-executed effect! I like that entry to London, that way of making the city a theatrical character. The waterside scene before the fateful boat trip was particularly well-done.

* I know it’s a pain to stage fight calls, but this show needs to be bolder on physical violence, especially where Pip’s sister is concerned. She always seemed as though she might be half-joking, in this production. If we don’t feel Pip’s distress and lowness, we can’t fully dramatically engage with the poisoned chalice of his elevation. It Pip’s sister isn’t truly awful, we can’t have the huge Dickensian catharsis and forgiveness. This is always a vital element of his work, but it seems especially so at Christmas, given that Dickens’ Christmas stories in Household Words and All The Year Round always stressed redemption and forgiveness. These were key elements of the civic religiosity Dickens painstaking constructed around Christmas from the publication of the Carol up into the very end of his life.

* There’s a lot of quick-change doubling in this production, singled by actors’ bearing, voice and small alterations of costume. This, interestingly, reminds me of the monopolylogues which Dickens absolutely lived for as a young legal clerk, which Simon Callow (in his theatrically-focused Dickens biography) convincingly argues influenced both Dickens’ character-writing and his later readings. The term ‘readings’ makes one think of a sort of thin experience, but Dickens threw himself into the embodiment of his characters in a way that was, by all contemporary accounts, riveting. Someone called him a man possessed, and he sold out American and British theatres on the strength of his performance as much as his literary celebrity.

We had a good Pip (who was never tasked with playing anyone else that I recall) and, via these changes, a great Herbert Pocket and a powerful Jaggers/Magwitch. I wanted Estella to come off fiercer, though, eviscerating in her pride and contempt, and for Havisham to be towering. These are titanic roles, and I feel actresses can be too afraid of taking up the requisite space sufficiently definitively. For all we talk about femininity as a performance and spectacle, I think actresses have to work harder than actors to demand attention—that they risk and do more in giving that to a role and an audience, and that the audience is not necessarily fair to them when they do. Still, this is a piece in part about power, gender and social appearances, and given that thematic content I think it’s especially incumbent on actresses in these roles to screw their courage to the sticking place and go huge. This isn’t Merchant Ivory territory.

* I didn’t notice until now that Pip in GE and David in DC both use almost the same language for Estella ( “Do you admire her?” Everybody must who sees her, Miss Havisham.”) and Agnes (“She has great admiration for Miss Agnes. And I’m sure you have too, Master Copperfield.” “Everybody must have,” I replied.” / “you said one day that everybody must admire her”). I suppose Dickens did re-read DC directly before writing GE, in order to make sure they weren’t too similar (Sidenote: he cried re-reading DC, which. What a wet sock, bless.), so he might have accidentally picked up his own phrasing. Still, such different women to say the same thing of! And to Miss Havisham and Uriah Heep, both of whom are the protagonists’ hidden enemies, and both of whom ask a leading question to provoke the response. Though nominally, Heep is trying to warn David off and Havisham to lead him on…

* The big conflict scenes (Magwitch’s first appearance, the fire, and the boat-non-escape) could all be crisper and clearer in their action.

* The interval comes when Pip arrives in London, and I felt the second half was superior to the first—the play picked up energy here.

* The arc of this adaptation is neatly curtailed.

* Joe was well-acted, and was the most effective emotional nexus in the piece. At times I thought the source text rather than this play generated and bore the emotion of the work, and I wanted the play to make itself felt more. I’m not sure how I wanted that to happen, but it was like the emotion was in the background, and I wanted it to move to this layer, to the foreground: for the play to own the narrative, at this moment, more than it was doing, to really nail its good intentions.

* The show had good costuming (in a historically vague way, but that wasn’t really the point) except for adult Estella—I liked her cape, but in general the silhouette didn’t work for me. Estella’s costuming is particularly difficult, though, as her outfit is tasked with embodying and helping convey the living display of power Havisham has made her into.

* I really feel they ought to have gone with the iconic ‘no shadow of a second parting’ closer. The current ending feels a little ‘…oh’, and that line is so classic, even if it wasn’t Dickens’ first choice—he was wrong, like Shaw was wrong about “Pygmalion”. It happens. It happens to Dickens kind of a lot.


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