Monday 7 October 2013

Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic

A spotlight. A chair. A bucket. A cloth.

This is all that greets you on stage at the beginning of Bristol Old Vic's new production of  Great Expectations. Immediately, I was reassured - you can't help but feel nervous when one of your favourite Dickens' novels, indeed one of your favourite novels full stop, is adapted for the theatre, even when the adaptor and director is as assured as Neil Bartlett.

But I needn't have worried, because from the opening scene it's obvious Bartlett has a very clear vision of what he wants to achieve; a pared-back staging with storytelling to the fore. Pip (Tom Canton) walks on and describes his early childhood using Dickens' evocative opening lines about the origins of his name. He visits the graves of his parents and the 'five little stone lozenges' that mark his dead brothers and first meets, of course, the terrifying escaped convict Magwitch (Timothy Walker).

Pip's is a harsh and solitary existence, brought up by an older sister who resents the drudgery of looking after him, as well as her kindly but downtrodden blacksmith husband Joe Gargery (Tim Potter). He's beaten with the dreaded 'tickler' and harangued for not being grateful enough that Mrs Joe (Lindsay Dukes) took him in. But Pip's life is transformed when his presence is requested at the house of the wealthy but reclusive Miss Havisham (Adjoa Andoh) and her chilling niece Estella (Laura Rees) and then once more when he's visited by Mr Jaggers (Tim Potter again), a solicitor who informs him of an anonymous benefactor who wishes to remove him to London to be schooled as a gentleman of' 'great expectations'.

Tom Canton is a charismatic and convincing Pip at all ages, adopting a younger, uneducated voice for the boy and switching effortlessly to the tones of a gentleman as he narrates his own story. Canton is very tall and the decision not to introduce a young actor for the childhood scenes was an inspired one; the sight of gangly young Pip folding himself into the smallest chair or being admonished by an adult forced to look up to him adds to the comedic moments. The whole ensemble cast is excellent, often acting as a chorus creeping upon Pip from backstage, wheeling tables around as a sideline and switching roles in his narration. Miltos Yerolemou (whose Bottom I'll never forget) provides many of the Dickensian comedy moments as Mr Pumblechook and Sarah Pocket. But the performance of the night must go to Adjoa Andoh as Miss Havisham, utterly breathtaking in her voicing and movements which didn't appear entirely human - in fact my husband and I spent the interval debating whether she was more arachnid or crab.

Michael Vale's austere staging means there's a greater focus on sound and lighting to dramatise Pip's story and prevent it from appearing too makeshift. Timothy X Atack's sound is crystal clear and elemental; hammer on metal, watery marshes, naked flames consuming flesh. The striking of matches reminded me of Bartlett's own 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC and of David Lynch's film Wild at Heart. Microphones, although occasionally distracting, are used to magnify sounds and add an anachronistic edge. And lighting switches moods and defines room sizes, closing off or illuminating the murky depths of the stage and dramatically highlighting Miss Havisham's dreadful demise.

With a book as long as Great Expectations some of the story has to be glossed over or omitted and a few of the elements, such as the development of Estella's relationship with Bentley Drummle or Pip's reluctance to keep in touch with Joe, seem rushed. They might be difficult to understand, in the second half in particular, without prior knowledge of the novel and older children (the recommended age is 11+) or anyone not familiar with (or having forgotten) the subtleties of the plot would be well advised to read a synopsis before seeing this production.

Ultimately though, this is a reader's adaptation, storytelling at its finest and true to the original text. It captures exactly the spirit of Pip's desolation, the mystery of his change in fortune, his need for forgiveness and to forgive himself. Bartlett reflects in the programme notes that this is Dickens' most darkly autobiographical novel and, despite the many moments of comedy, this production has a more authentic emotional heart than any version I've seen.

Great Expectations is at Bristol old Vic until 2nd November 2013. Pictures and my tickets to see Great Expectations are courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.

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