19 June 2007
standing by and seeing it done
Right after my return from Pittsburgh and DC, I saw Oliver Twist, adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett, which has been touring around and ended up at Berkeley Rep, and which was fairly enjoyable, unlike the disastrous To the Lighthouse earlier in the season. But, again, when you adapt a novel to the stage, the big moments are preserved, but out of context; the plot is simplified in ways that inevitably distort the story; and any sort of interior monologue tends to be lost or distorted (more of a problem with Woolf than Dickens, but more of a problem with Dickens that one might think). The idea here is that Oliver Twist comes out of the world of Victorian melodrama, and should be presented as such, with plenty of bold action and stark lighting and big gestures. Oliver Twist actually seems a bit early for Victorian melodrama, though it certainly has affinities with that world, but it also has affinities with Romantic literature in the doomed figure of Monks (even the name conjures up Maturin and Radcliffe), who disappears from this version, and with eighteenth-century prison stories of the sort Fielding parodied in Jonathan Wild, so concentrating on melodrama narrows the style of the novel already. Mr. Bumble (Remo Airaldi) and Nancy (Jennifer Ikeda) particularly suffer from compression. You can tell that Dickens has a soft spot for Bumble, cruel and stupid though he is; Bumble, among his great sympathy for himself, has some glimmers for Oliver, and there’s something laughable rather than contemptible in the greed that motivates his marriage to Mrs. Bumble. Many of the novel’s memorable moments (Oliver wants more, it’s meat ma’am, if the law thinks that the law is a [sic] ass the law is a bachelor) center on him. Airaldi was rotund and self-satisfied but the character might just be too far from contemporary experience to be understood when you only see peaks and not the whole range. Ikeda as Nancy sported the disheveled unkempt hairstyle that signifies moral disrepair, streetwalker-division, in the theater. She’s also extremely beautiful, which the novel’s Nancy is not – it’s interesting to wonder if it’s just our contemporary theatrical convention that prostitutes are beautiful, or if it’s an early nineteenth century convention that a lower-class prostitute would not have the delicate beauty of Rose Maylie (who, like Monks, isn’t in this version – and has any version ever kept Henry Maylie, the most unlikely clergyman in nineteenth century fiction?). I’m guessing, given general conditions, the nineteenth century version is closer to actuality than our version is. In any case Ikeda, probably to make Nancy less of a victim, gives her a feisty edge, but given the stage’s compression of events, her whipsaw conversion back-and-forth from capturing Oliver from Mr. Brownlow to defending him from Bill and then handing him over again to Bill for the robbery and then telling Mr. Brownlow where Oliver is makes her look not so much like a woman struggling towards goodness while trapped by her love for an unworthy man as a woman who is simply emotionally unbalanced. Bill was the muscular and threatening Gregory Derelian, who also doubled as the muscular and threatening Mrs. Sowerberry. Carson Elrod was outstanding as the narrator and as the Artful Dodger, though again his character gets misrepresented when he, rather than the sneaky Noah Claypole, is the one to spy on Nancy – such low activities would be beneath the Dodger’s sense of himself, and if you miss a nuance like that, you miss the whole Brechtian underworld Dickens presents. (Also, despite Bartlett’s claims that almost every word came from the novel, Dodger does not die in prison but is transported to Australia – like Bumble, he’s a bad guy that Dickens finds endearing.) As Oliver himself, Michael Wartella met the main challenge, which is to keep Oliver from looking like a simp. Fagin (Ned Eisenberg) is of course a bit awkward for contemporary audiences. The word “Jew” is never uttered in the play, though Fagin is repeatedly referred to as such in the novel (nor does it appear in the film of the musical, even though all of Fagin’s songs sound like out-takes from Fiddler on the Roof – rather endearingly, he is not executed at the end, possibly because the murder of Nancy and hanging of Sykes were considered enough deaths for musicals not involving meat pies; instead, he and the Dodger toddle off together into the sunrise, practically hand-in-hand, to continue their jolly life of crime). Several years ago I read an interesting article by Garry Wills in which he suggested that Fagin’s Jewishness is a covert reference to his pedophilia, both groups being outside and opposed to the normative masculinity of the time (a view also discussed, though not in specific reference to Fagin, in George Mosse’s The Image of Man, which I read recently). The Fagin of this production is not the mild-mannered, sneaky insinuator of the book; he licks his lips and speaks boldly in lascivious tones. His accent and mannerisms are those of a stage Jew, though sometimes more so than others and I wasn’t sure if this was some comment on the construction of stage stereotypes or if the actor was simply inconsistent. And before his execution, when Dickens makes a point of saying he rejected the ministrations of holy men of his own persuasion, this version has him bursting out into “Hear, O Israel” in Hebrew, no less. Perhaps this is meant to show a desperate mind casting around for any comfort, but it seemed like an odd addition. Fagin’s last night is a striking scene in the novel, given from inside Fagin’s mind, sort of early stream-of-consciousness only with punctuation, as he varies between frenzy and flatness, blankly noticing strange little details and then frantic with dread. This is exactly the sort of interior mental shift that loses much of its detail and insight on stage, where the outer necessarily swamps the inner. This is a valid, powerful way of presenting the world – we tend to see the outer with most people, and can only guess at their interiors. But what the novel can do is try to clue us in to someone else’s interior, which makes it a very different animal from the stage. Which brings us to my plea: This was a pretty successful evening, but can we maybe give a rest to adaptations of novels on stage? If the feeling is that they are known properties that will draw in audiences, then I don’t see why Woolf and Cather are bigger magnets than, say, Ibsen or Marlowe would be. The RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby was one of the greatest days I’ve ever spent in a theater, but it took over eight hours and the full resources of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that is a fairly episodic novel. More tightly plotted novels suffer accordingly. In the past few years, and a merciful memory may be causing me to forget some, I’ve seen My Antonia vandalized at Theatreworks in a wretched travesty that a few good performances could not save, The Overcoat at ACT that was mainly interesting for the thoroughness with which it altered absolutely everything that makes Gogol’s story distinctive, and the utterly awful To the Lighthouse earlier at Berkeley Rep. Kids, if you really can’t think of any other actual playwrights to produce, there’s always Shakespeare.