Monday, June 3, 2024

London Tide: Dickens and Brecht

The cast of London Tide at the National Theatre, London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

As I think is often the case with the iconic nineteenth-century realists, Charles Dickens’s style has never fitted snugly into the official definition of realism. It’s realism embellished, realism plus. In his characters, especially the most memorable ones, the qualities that delineate them, like Miss Havisham’s desire for vengeance against the male sex in Great Expectations and Mr. Micawber’s eternal optimism in David Copperfield, are so exaggerated that the characters become metaphors for those qualities. Dickens’s genius for inventing imaginative visual symbols that sit alongside the characters – for Miss Havisham, the stale, mice-ridden wedding cake and the clock stopped at the moment when her intended groom abandoned her at the altar – enhances the process, lending the stories the aura of enchantment, which goes along with the author’s predilection for moral fables. What situates him in the realm of realism is a combination of his abundant love of detail and his psychological insight, particularly in the passages that elaborate the experience of a feeling or the nature of a behavior. Those are the moments in his novels when the abstract is transformed into the specific, which is the way realism works. That transformation is the midpoint between abstraction and universality: if the writer has rendered the general as an image so precise and layered that we can recognize it from our own experience, then we can see straight through its replication of real life to a profound truth. If you try to boil down Dickens’s approach to simple caricature, you can make him sound like it’s linked to what Brecht did later in his plays, but it’s the opposite – he’s not using exaggeration to distance his readers but to draw us in.

This distinction occurred to me while I was watching Ian Rickson’s Brechtian production for the National Theatre of London Tide, which Ben Power has adapted from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Our Mutual Friend is one of the writer’s more obscure works and one of the most fascinating. It showcases common vices that take up residence in our blood: greed, jealousy, ambition and pride. We struggle against them, unless we succumb to them and become their agents, as do a number of the novel’s characters. It’s also about the corrupt values of an entrenched class society that reinforces those vices. When it appears that John Harmon, the estranged only son of a London rubbish magnate, has been drowned in the Thames River, the fortune he would have inherited goes instead to the millionaire’s loyal servants, the Boffins. They are generous enough to invite the heir’s intended bride, Bella Wilfer, who comes from a poor family, to move in with them and share their wealth. She is happy to do so; she never met her fiancĂ© – their marriage was arranged by the millionaire – but now she feels abruptly disenfranchised, and she loves the idea of being rich. The complication is that Harmon isn’t really dead; the corpse that has turned up in the tide is of another young man bearing Harmon’s identifying papers. Liberated from the manipulations of an unkind father, Harmon takes another name, John Rokesmith, then secures the post of secretary to the Boffins so he can observe Bella. And he falls in love with her. So he sets a test to see whether she can get past her attraction to money if she sees at first hand how damaging it can be.

Most of the subplots also center around greed, but the other vices are attached to the other main plot. When Gaffer Hexam, who lives off the leavings of the tide, finds the body, he is the prime suspect in Harmon’s murder. His virtuous and sensitive daughter Lizzie, terrified that he might be guilty, sends her younger brother Charlie away to school to remove him from a morally dangerous environment. In a perfect Dickensian irony, it’s her removal of him from his home that actually makes him lose his moral compass: he becomes obsessed with acquiring social standing and so blinded by pride and ambition that he takes on the ideals of his schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone, who seeks to marry Lizzie. In Charlie’s eyes, the match would elevate both siblings; he doesn’t perceive that Headstone’s romantic fixation on his sister is pathological. When she rejects his proposal of marriage, he’s eaten away by his jealousy of her other suitor, Eugene Wrayburn, a solitary lawyer whose love of Lizzie has grounded him and given his life purpose for the first time.

Our Mutual Friend is as densely plotted as any Dickens novel (my summary doesn’t include the subplots or ancillary characters), so Power would have set himself sufficient challenges even if he hadn’t elected to make his adaptation Brechtian; after all, the justly celebrated David Edgar dramatization of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, directed by Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, was in two parts and had a running time of eight and a half hours. London Tide is just over three hours and includes thirteen songs by Power and PJ Harvey that are intended to provide Brechtian commentary, though only the ensemble numbers do. What Rickson and Power proffer as Brechtian is unconvincing; it seems to have been whipped up out of misperceptions, even though we might expect Powers to understand the way the style works, since Sam Mendes’s direction of the three actors in The Lehman Trilogy, which Powers culled from Stefano Massini’s five-hour radio play, contained the most brilliant presentation of Brechtian gestus, the use of physical economy to pinpoint a character, I’ve ever seen. The songs in London Tide are raw and gritty, but both the music and lyrics, as well as the vocal performances, grate on the ears. Since the Brits are famous for their vocal as well as their physical training, it seems unlikely that Rickson brought together the only ensemble in London of actors who can’t sing, so this must be his and music director Ian Ross’s idea of what a Brechtian musical is supposed to sound like. (The trio of musicians who back them is mediocre.) The keyword for this production is monochromatic. All twenty of the actors on the stage are perfectly efficient, but not one stays in the mind. There’s very little color in the costumes and none in the set or the lighting. (Jack Knowles designed the lights, and the set and costumes are by Bunny Christie, whose work is usually first-rate.) Undulating banks of white lights often fill in for the pared-down set and provide a Brechtian visual effect that is, like the image of actors crawling out of or falling into the orchestra pit at the Lyttleton Theatre, overused. Didn’t the title of the play evoke more interesting ideas? There’s only one memorable image:  when two of the characters fight to the death in the river, they’re pressed up behind a sheet of plastic that both silhouettes them and makes it look like they’re drowning in glue.

Ironically, of all of Dickens’s books Our Mutual Friend is the only one I can think of that invites a Brechtian reading: the author includes a gossipy aristocratic chorus that voices disapproval of the social ascension of the Boffins and the class-crossing romances as unwise “social experiments” while Eugene’s roommate, Mortimer Lightwood, answers them with escalating disdain. (Lightwood’s growing remoteness from his questioners is part of Dickens’s method for making his own commentary on them.) Oddly, Power has eliminated them.

But it isn’t just the Brechtian aspect of the production that’s badly misconceived. Power has altered the motivations of Dickens’s characters in ways that simplify them. He’s remade Eugene (Jamael Westman), whom Dickens drew as a restless lost soul (until his life is touched by Lizzie), as a reformer who’s dedicated his life to the improvement of the poor. That’s his initial impulse in offering to educate Lizzie (Ami Treadrea), which runs him into trouble with Headstone, who wants to do the same thing but for selfish reasons. Bella (Bella Maclean) is no longer driven by a desire for money, so her moving in with the Boffins feels like a plot point that’s left over from the book but insufficiently explained in the play. Her conflict isn’t between greed and a love that she doesn’t want to admit to herself because John Rokesmith (Tom Mothersdale), in the position of secretary to Noddy Boffin (Peter Wight), no longer fits her image of the suitor her new social standing calls for; it’s between an old home and a new one. In the novel her mother and sister are insufferable; here they start off as obnoxious but turn out to be loving and sweet. Since she isn’t especially susceptible to the poisonous magnetism of money, John has no reason to test her, so he doesn’t. Dickens holds back the information that Noddy’s increasingly shabby treatment of his secretary is a masquerade until very late in the narrative, and I do have trouble with it because it comes across as a mean trick on Bella. You get the feeling that Dickens started out with the idea that even a good man like Noddy Boffin is corruptible by greed and then dropped it to make the plot twist work. But the book does need some device to set Bella’s moral trajectory in motion, and the play has none. And since it also eliminates Silas Wegg, whose own lust for wealth leads him to prey on Noddy – he sets out to steal from him and then to blackmail him – greed ceases to be a theme at all.

What we’re left with is a generalized handling of the theme of poverty, which Power has apparently lifted from a notion that this was a problem that preoccupied Dickens. Well, it did, but not primarily in Our Mutual Friend, where money is only significant in terms of its connection to class. The Lammles, a miserably married young couple who get together because each is under the misperception that the other is rich, scheme to get money so that they can remain in good society. Dickens depicts Bella’s and her mother and sister’s dislike of their life of genteel poverty not as a revolt against a state of desperation but as a complaint that they have been socially marginalized. Lizzie sends Charlie away from her father in order to keep him safe from evil, not poverty, and he comes under Bradley Headstone’s malevolent influence because he has developed class consciousness. The closest the book comes to bemoaning the poverty of any of the characters is in its portrait of Jenny Wren, Lizzie’s friend, who makes dresses for dolls, and even then her pitiable state – she was born with defects in her back and legs and walks with a crutch – is mostly the legacy of a family of drunks.

Jenny, the quirkiest and most memorable character in the novel, has no physical disabilities in London Tide. One might guess that this decision was arrived at out of the current silliness that it’s ablest or cultural appropriation or something to cast an actor without real-life physical challenges in the role of a character who has them. As it happens, though, Beth Alsbury, the actress who plays Lavinia Wilfer, is in a wheelchair. Why didn’t Rickson cast her as Jenny and retain the distinguishing features of the character, which have real links to a social problem Dickens cared deeply about?  Would that have somehow been prejudicial?  Trying to work this stuff out can turn your brain into a pretzel.

A tip for my readers: if you don’t have time to read Our Mutual Friend you might check out the 1998 BBC adaptation, which is quite well executed. The standouts among a generally tip-top cast are Keeley Hawes as Lizzie, Anna Friel as Bella, Paul McBann as Eugene, Peter Vaughan as Noddy Boffin, Pam Ferris as Mrs. Boffin, David Morrissey as Headstone and Timothy Spall as Mr. Venus, who begins as a crony of Wegg’s but undergoes a metamorphosis. Sandy Welch wrote the teleplay and Julian Farino directed. The filmmakers gentle Bella’s test so that it comes across as less cruel. And Dominic Mafham, who plays Lightwood, suggests a stronger affection for his friend and flatmate Eugene than you don’t detect in the novel but that seems as plausible as some of it is in some of the male friendships in Shakespeare (Sebastian and Antonio’s in Twelfth Night or Antonio and Bassanio’s in The Merchant of Venice). In the final scene, where all the happy couples gather for a picnic, Mafham lingers on Lightwood’s single status that makes it, like his scenes with McGann, unexpectedly affecting.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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