One of the bravest things you can do as a theatre director is take a second look at a work that achieved legendary status on its initial outing. No one could accuse Jonathan Church of lacking courage in this department. When he was artistic director of the Birmingham Rep, he mounted the first revival of David Hare's mighty trilogy of plays about the church, the law, and the Labour Party's 1992 electoral defeat.
And now one of Church's earliest moves as the new artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre is to stage a revival of David Edgar's mammoth two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby - a piece which, when premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, was immediately hailed as a landmark event. But Church's gamble has paid off handsomely. His production (co-directed with Philip Franks) of a trimmer six-hour version (Edgar has reduced the original by a quarter) has a winning emotional generosity and dramatic sweep.
One of the most moving aspects of the show is the contrast between its particular method of presentation and the unlovely ethos of the industrial society that Dickens depicts. In a tour de force of superb ensemble playing, a cast of 24 assume multiple roles and shift between third-person narration and vivid enactment. This powerful sense of collaborative effort makes its own touching statement against the irresponsibility in the world they are evoking, where the skinflint Ralph Nickleby refuses to take proper care of his impoverished sister-in-law's family and where unwanted offspring are dumped in barbaric child-depositories such as Dotheboys Hall.
The novel is inherently theatrical - and not just in the black-and-white conflict between motiveless malignity and the goodness represented by Daniel Weyman's hotly impetuous and charming Nicholas and his brain-damaged dependent, Smike (portrayed by David Dawson most affectingly, despite the fact that the character's struggles with speech at times make him sound curiously Czech rather than handicapped).
In an excellent programme note, Simon Callow points out that, notwithstanding some backstage bitchery, Nicholas finds during his adventures with the deliciously ropy Crummles touring troupe "a kindness, a warmth, and an inclusiveness in the theatre that contrast favourably with almost every other stratum of society that he encounters".
Though it goes on a tad too long, the finale to the first half is hilarious, as the Crummles Company perform their happy-ending version of Romeo and Juliet in which there's a veritable epidemic of people cheerily reviving from death.
I'd forgotten, though, just how cleverly Edgar builds on and enhances the theatricality in the book. There's an excellent sequence where he cuts between scenes showing the fate of Shakespeare's Juliet, whom the Capulets want to marry off to Paris, and corresponding episodes from the novel in which young Kate Nickleby (a dignified Hannah Yelland) is used as bait by her uncle for Lord Frederick Verisopht.
I have some cavils. The second play falls into a tangle of complicated plotting. Leigh Lawson as the dastardly Ralph comes into his own when the wicked uncle is forced to confront the consequences of his lovelessness, but before that I think he tries to suggest troubled depths in the character at the expense of conveying the malevolent force that you need in a stage baddie. Overwhelmingly, though, this is a persuasive and elating event. There's a heart-twisting touch right at the end when the potentially smug happy-ever-after mood and the company rendition of "God rest ye, merry gentleman" are disturbingly offset when Nicholas notices that lying outside in the snow is one of the escaped boys from Dotheboys Hall. He lifts the boy into his arms and holds him out to us as an eloquent reminder that there are many other Smikes to be saved. Warmly recommended.
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