Untold Theatre’s Beyond Expectations, which had a run this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe and a short tour around the UK, stated an intention to retell Great Expectations with an emphasis on Estella Havisham’s life and story. I saw the show on September 14 at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre, thanks to a press ticket from JVC.
I enjoyed Beyond Expectations and found the show’s greatest strengths in the writing and acting. Adapting Dickens is a difficult task but Levinson and Silk’s script is nicely pitched throughout: not naturalistic, but never forced or awkward and always with a properly Dickensian flavour. Even the achievement of condensing Dickens’s book into a one-hour timeslot without losing the threads of the story deserves recognition (although, of course, it’s hard to say whether I’d have found it more difficult to follow had I not already been familiar with the novel). The emphasis on Estella’s story provides a convincing justification for condensing down the threads of the novel and I can imagine the production providing a useful talking point for a group of students working on the book.
The cast is small but effective. Brooke Andersen is particularly compelling as Molly, Mr Jaggers’s strong-armed servant and Estella’s mother. Levinson and Silk, who previously collaborated on an ethnographic study of Gipsies in the South-West of England, choose to play up Molly’s Gipsy heritage in this piece: the opening monologue has her dealing Tarot cards, offering her verdict on each of the drama’s characters with a warning to the audience about the powers of Fate. The conceit works, I think, particularly as it’s matched in the play’s final scene with a vision of another life in which Estella and Pip might have met under different and more favourable circumstances. Andersen’s performance is powerful enough to draw the audience in from the outset and she maintains its strength throughout the first part of the piece, dealing with the unhappy story of Estella’s parents. She doubles the role with that of Miss Havisham, a parallel which of course makes sense and a second part in which Andersen also does well (although her confident demeanour I think suits better to the Gipsy than the jilted bride).
Elsewhere, the rest of the cast proved themselves similarly capable. Ben Paddon is an unctuous and physically intimidating Jaggers (there’s an unpleasant moment between the lawyer and Molly that Paddon and Andersen pulled off with aplomb); Liam Atton is a bluff, endeaing Herbert Pocket (and a decidedly drunken Magwitch); Jess Levinson Young plays Estella with a flavour of Scarlett O’Hara (it’s something about the smile) and John Hatziemmanuel’s Bentley Drummle is suitably brash, with a braying laugh that suits nicely with his interests in horses and ‘riding’. As Pip, producer Joseph Rynhart is straightforwardly earnest and appealing; it’s inevitable, I think, that his character loses some complexity in service of Estella’s more fully developed narrative here.
The one part of the show about which I was less certain was the multimedia projection running almost constantly on a large screen at the back of the stage. The venue in which I saw the play didn’t do it many favours, here: the stage was already small and with the screen in place, it became extremely narrow. Performers found themselves blocking the projection’s light and so what might have been more seamlessly integrated under more favourable circumstances became a little intrusive here. But I think it’s also an issue of design; the images aren’t particularly consistent, a mixture of photographs, animation and illustration that didn’t always seem to hang together. Something more cohesive might have been really effective in giving a unified aesthetic to the whole piece.
That said, my reservations about the projection weren’t enough really to affect my enjoyment of the show. Dickens in the theatre is always a challenge and this company, and these writers, have done an excellent job. Anybody with an interest in Great Expectations, particularly those teaching it, would do well to consider attending Beyond Expectations if it appears in their neighbourhood at any future performances; and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on Untold Theatre’s next steps.
Writers Martin Levinson and Avril Silk, and Joseph Rynhart, producer/performer, were kind enough to answer some of my questions about the show: the interview is presented below.
What motivated this reworking of Dickens’s novel? How do you see the emphasis of your work as differing from Dickens’s own?
AVRIL: My motivation was cider induced during a performance of Great Expectations! I thought of the astonishing things that had happened to Estella and wanted to explore her story in more depth.
MARTIN: We have tried to uncover some of the psychological layers. Even in his own lifetime Dickens was criticised (by e.g. George Eliot) for his characterisation. I always thought that Dickens’ characters loom so large that they block out the psychological hinterland; we wanted to explore what might be in the shadows.
JOE: Untold Theatre was set-up with the aim of creating theatre that offers an alternative perspective on existing material. In the past, this has meant mainly contemporary, documentary or verbatim theatre. Beyond Expectations meant we were able to explore a slightly more classical strand to our work. What was interesting was putting more of a focus on Estella – but still using Dickens’ original work to inform the story.
Could you talk a little more about the use of multimedia elements in your production? Was that an integral part of your initial vision or was it something that came later during the development process?
JOE: We’re constantly looking to develop our own style as a company. This quite often included to use of multimedia elements. They can be incredibly useful in aiding the more tricky aspects of storytelling – time passing, characters aging and anything that would take a huge budget to show on stage. It’s also useful for truncating or extending the passage of time. We knew the show would include projections from the start – but we didn’t know how. We offered the writers free reign to put any projections they thought would be effective into the script. After this, we looked through the text ourselves and picked out some additional points where projections might be useful. Most were created before rehearsals began, but we allowed enough freedom to play around with them. A lot of the strongest projections came from saying “wouldn’t it be cool if….”, and then looking for a way to carry it out.
MARTIN: All I might say from our perspective was that we both began by thinking in terms of a screen adaptation. Moreover, Dickens’ descriptions of place are so evocative that it seems almost criminal to exclude some visual representation.
I was struck by the ending of the play, which posits an alternate universe in which Pip and Estella might have been happy. Could you talk more about the thinking behind that idea? Does it relate to Dickens’ alternative endings for the novel?
MARTIN: Dickens had provided two endings, and had been persuaded to move away from his initial (more pessimistic resolution) of the story. We thought this ending was more truthful to both Dickens and the characters.
AVRIL: We knew that Dickens’ original ending was considered very bleak, so he wrote one that was more upbeat to please his critics. We rather reversed this… Estella and Pip play with the happy ever after possibility but the reality is that friendship is all they can hope for. My feeling is that with all the damage done to both Pip and Estella, loving friendship is the most likely possibility.
JOE: Everybody felt that we had to aim for a certain level of ambiguity in our ending – and allow audiences a chance to decide for themselves. At the same time, the tone of the play did not lend itself to a happy resolution. Towards the end of the story, both Pip and Estella are trying to shake off people, places and events that have shackled them to the past. I believe they are both looking to escape. To commit to each other would be to commit to a life without escape, and to be honest about who they really are. I’m not sure either of them really wanted to do that.
How far do you think your work was influenced by other dramatic or cinematic adaptations of the novel?
MARTIN: It is impossible not to begin without some images in your mind from e.g. the (wonderfully atmospheric) David Lean, 1946 adaptation. Nevertheless, we hope Beyond Expectations feels fresh and original. To begin with, while we included a few bits of the original dialogue to keep the play ‘rooted’, almost all of the words were our own. Then, from a writing perspective, it seemed as if the (truly excellent) actors claimed and slightly re-shaped each character.
JOE: I really enjoyed the 2012 film of Great Expectations, directed by Mike Newell. We wanted to create something that was our own, but in choosing music and film for the play I was nonetheless inspired by the film. Dickens’ tale is so expansive – across time and place. The film captures beautifully an entire lifetime in around two hours, and I wanted our production to have this same sense of pace.
Do you anticipate working on further adaptations in future? Are there other novels you’d like to work up in a similar way?
MARTIN: If there is another project based on Charles Dickens, which is a strong possibility, it is likely to focus on biographical elements of his life, rather than on any single novel. But this is undecided at the moment.
AVRIL: I very much hope to continue to work as part of this team. That does interest me… And even now we are looking at a companion piece for Beyond Expectations. I have a passion for looking at the lives of under-rated real women and anyone treated as a postscript to history.
JOE: I’ve loved the process of working with the writers, the actors and Jessica Levinson Young (my co-producer). It has been great to work together, so of course I would love to create more! As well as this, the show is still evolving. I don’t see this work as something completely finished yet – there is more mileage in Estella’s story, and I’d love to find out what that is!