Dickens Meets Terence Rattigan

Rohan McWilliam

A Tale of Two Cities is at the Kings Head, Islington, from 25 September-19 October 2013.  The script has been published by Samuel French.

Tale of Two Cities

To the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington for a real curio: the premiere of a dramatisation of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities by, of all people, Terence Rattigan and John Gielgud.  This version, written in 1935, has never been performed by professional actors on stage so its arrival at the Kings Head (notable for adventurous programming) is worth noticing.

In 1935, Gielgud was basking in the success of his Hamlet and was master of all he surveyed as far as the theatre was concerned.  He conceived the idea of staging Dickens’s story of the French Revolution as a star vehicle for himself.  The structure of the adaptation, including the scenes taken from the novel, were of Gielgud’s devising but he was persuaded to bring in Rattigan to do the heavy lifting when it came to writing the dialogue.  At this time Rattigan had only just dropped out of Oxford to pursue a career as a dramatist.  The script was written, the New Theatre was booked and a set was designed.  Then disaster struck in the form of a letter from Sir John Martin-Harvey.  The barnstorming actor, then aged seventy two, had been performing a version of Dickens’s novel, under the title The Only Way, ever since 1899.  In 1935 he was still engaged in a farewell tour with the play and asked Gielgud to delay his production.  To Rattigan’s horror, Gielgud agreed and the dramatisation was never performed (although there have been a number of amateur productions and a version on radio).

Performing the play now means that it is part of the Rattigan revival that has been gathering speed over the last fifteen years or so.  Rattigan was despised by the John Osborne generation of playwrights in the 1950s (too many French windows) although his plays have continued to be crowd pleasers over the years.  The irony is that Rattigan now feels like a far more sophisticated and vibrant dramatist than the blimpish John Osborne.

Commenting on the adaptation itself is a little tricky as the version at the Kings Head is cut down from a three and a half hour original (though I suspect, if it had got on stage in 1935, Gielgud would himself have cut it).  What we have is an adaptation of an adaptation.  Rattigan and Gielgud deliberately avoided spectacle.  The French Revolution happens off stage for the most part and there is very little sense of politics (even in the way they were rendered by Dickens).  The dramatisation was put together in the same year as the Hollywood film version with Ronald Colman which, of course, had plenty of spectacle.  Instead, the play focuses on the Manette family and their various servants and hangers on.  Rattigan perceived accurately that this was not an epic but an intimate family story.  It is a literate adaptation, though one that does not provide many clues about Rattigan’s future development.  For the most part, it sticks to Dickens’s original, although some scenes like the dispatching of Madame Defarge don’t appear.   There is a blow job scene that I don’t remember in Dickens’s original and, I suspect, wasn’t in Rattigan’s either.  The measure of an adaptation, however, is not its resemblance to the original but its strength as a piece of theatre.

The production at the Kings Head is performed by eight actors, which means a lot of doubling.  This, however, is a story of doubles (Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay).  As is the way with this kind of pub theatre, the audience fears that the actors will trip over them and fall into their lap.  They employ modern dress (a lot of black leather) with the odd nod to the French Revolution.  Clearly, the intention was to abandon any feeling of ‘heritage’ theatre and to avoid the clichés of historical drama; hence the prog rock score that punctuates the action.  However, the direction by Adam Spreadbury-Maher was never clearly focussed.  A Tale of Two Cities has frequently been adapted for stage and film because audiences respond to its story of love and sacrifice.  This version rarely moved.  A production where the audience does not weep at the end has a problem.

This may be an ensemble production but any version stands or falls on its Sidney Carton.  This version featured Stewart Agnew in his first professional role.  He also doubled the role interestingly with the villainous Marquis de St. Evrémonde (a doubling that Gielgud, with his eye on all the best parts, would also have undertaken).  Agnew’s take on the part was uncertain but he grew into it during the evening.  There were times when he seemed to be channelling Alan Rickman (which is not a bad take on Carton) but he conveys something of the character’s brooding inner life and torment.   Carton’s sacrifice, of course, is his own way of being ‘recalled to life’.  This is why we love this story.  Of the other actors, it is worth saying that Nicholas Bishop makes headway with the frankly thankless role of Charles Darnay.  He produces an earnest goodness where he could so easily have been merely bland.  There is also a good comic turn from Shelley Lang as the lawyer Stryver and I enjoyed the dignity of Paul Beech’s Jarvis Lorry.

The evening does close with one effective coup de theatre.  Inevitably, it ends with the lines ‘It is a far, far better thing…’.  These words, however, are delivered not by Carton but by Lucie Manette, reading a letter from Carton.  A nice touch.  I suspect there will be other productions of this adaptation now that the King’s Head has led the way.

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and President of the British Association for Victorian Studies.

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