Gielgud-Rattigan’s 1935 adaptation—premièring now but for a 1950 BBC radio play, is a fantastic idea. Dickens wrote London like a lover, and drama with such an astonishingly firm grasp on its visual quality, on the play of emotional high lights and shadows, on characters that double as opulent scenery, provide rhythmic, audible themes, and pop up as physical motifs, that he invented—or for all posterity laid claim to—a wildly popular literary cinematic genre. A Tale of Two Cities is, in comparison with his other books, sparsely peopled, sparely subplotted, but those are relative terms. Almost as a matter of (democratic) principle, Dickens’s narrative sprawls. In Speadbury-Maher’s production thirty characters are played by eight actors.
Then there’s a matter 32 years and two cities trans-Channel cities. Within the confines of a sometime boxing-rink / pool-room above the King’s Head Pub (which traces its history back to a rumoured pit stop made by Henry VIII en route to an assignation), and with the limited budget of its unsubsidised TheatreUpClose, a full-scale sort of adaptation would be impossible.
And finally, Dickens’s characterisations. A very urgent point, if one’s not going to stage the storming of the Bastille or London’s ‘best of times-worst of times’. His comedic caricatures are unforgettable, but his virtuous protagonists usually leave much to be desired. So in a stage adaptation ofTale what could any actor do with such an abject cipher as Charles Darnay?
The answer, it seems, is a prudent nothing. Paul Beech sidles along a make-believe ledge as the French wine-shop-keeper Defarge with Dickensian exaggeration, then proceeds with a competent impression of youthful yet apparently effortless righteous renunciation of privilege as Darnay. But the Gielgud-Rattigan adaptation grants him less scope to explore the motives and passions of a Republic Citizen, or of an exiled, left-leaning aristocrat than even Dickens did. The production gallops at a break-neck, breathless pace; if Beech attempted any more than enunciation he’d probably set the entire efficient machine ajangle.
A far more egregious, unkind cut dethrones Madame Defarge. Played by the magnificently versatile Shelley Lang (also an unctuous Stryver, a nasty little Bow Street runner, an aged clerk, etc.), she’s much too crowded visually, her muteness barely registers amidst the surrounding clatter; there’s nothing larger than life, truly sinister, about her. Dickens’s Madame, with her cold bloodlust, her implacable hatred, with her uncanny, repulsive otherness, is revealed as a classic, symbolic oppressed oppressor whom we are challenged (and dared) to empathise with. Lang’s Madame is speechless without being Silence; angry without being Fury, dressed in black without being a many-eyed Night.
At the other end of the spectrum: Jennie Gruner’s Lucie Mannett, deprived not of symbolic force but of individuality. Her helpless agony in the face of her father’s 18-year imprisonment is reduced to a lukewarm reunion scene. The loss of her child (which Dickens too glosses over, but what a character could be made of such material!) is cancelled out. She becomes the object of masculine affections in a way her original creator actually never managed to perfect in his Tale.
The Gielgud-Rattigan adaptation’s a pot-boiler. We surf crashing and falling waves of emotion, but have neither time nor incentive to examine our responses. The frequent and numerous iterations of English superiority over French [insert noun of choice: cities, women, patriotism, civilisation] for instance, were amazingly amusing to the audience at the King’s Head on the 27th. Despite our usual complacent claims to cultural sensitivity the issue of xenophobia never had a moment to ripple outward from the stage and linger in the dark corners of the theatrical space.
Christopher Hone’s set and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes belie the creative team’s claims that this mod production’s set in East London: there’s a condensed, tight-laced opulence about Lipman’s velvet and silk, the lowering blue-green-yellow-red LED-lit lowering clouds of crêpe overhead, the gleaming stools that become coaches, the seemingly custom-made doll’s house inn-table and plentiful wine sloshing about, but this Tale could be happening anywhere.
Given the history of its adaptation, surely this production was meant to showcase Gielgud’s famous voice like “a silver trumpet muffled in silk” which “wooed the world,” in the twin roles of the Marquis de St Evremonde and Sydney carton. And here one can offer unqualified congratulations: Stephen Agnew is excellent. Unspeakably salacious as the Marquis; an absolute credit to the variously modulated expressive glibnesses, ironical, cool, impulsive, intelligent, foolish, sincere, faithful, perpetually false, of Carton.
The play would be well worth a watch just for this performance.