A review by Julia Gasper.
It was good to see the Playhouse packed last night for this laudable dramatization of Dickens’ wonderfully exciting classic. Mike Poulton’s stage adaptation is the latest of many dramatic versions of a tale that is inherently theatrical, with its bated-breath courtroom scenes and suspenseful escape plot. Within a small space, ingeniously used, the production (directed by James Dacre) managed to give us the impression of milling crowds and mass hysteria. The vivid colours of tricolor flags and gaudy military uniforms added to the excitement, as did the dark, punchy music. The guillotine itself has some resemblance to a stage, and those who mount it are giving a public performance. Our hero, Charles Darnay (Jacob Ifan) wants none of this drama or excitement. He is a peaceful, kind and decent man, who works hard and does no harm to anybody, yet is arraigned as a seditious criminal in England and a reactionary aristocrat in France, as extremism rages on both sides of the Channel.
We have seen many examples in our own time of revolutions going wrong, and bringing fresh forms of oppression and tyranny to power. It is a pity our own leaders in England did not reflect on this book before dabbling so often and so disastrously in regime change. Justice is a wonderful thing, but revenge is degrading, and when revenge becomes vindictive it is most degrading of all. The turmoil of a revolution is the ideal opportunity for new tyrannies to take over. Madame Defarge, the intensely menacing figure with her revolutionary fervour and thirst for vengeance, is one of Dickens’ most unforgettable creations, splendidly acted by Noa Bodner in a blood-red skirt that emphasises her defiant posture. She will never forget the wrongs to her sister and brother, and wants to wreak revenge even on children and babies.
Patrick Romer gave us a thoughtful performance as the elderly Dr Manette, survivor of eighteen years in the Bastille where he could only remember his identity as “105 North Tower”. Shanaya Rafaat made a very attractive and affectionate Lucy Manette, his daughter. In the crucial role of Sydney Carton, Joseph Timms revelled in the drunken degeneracy. Carton’s self-hatred and severe depression are rather disturbing, and today one would be tempted to say that he needs help. However, in the story he triumphs with the great act of self-sacrifice that brings meaning to a previously meaningless existence, and Timms delivered the final, heroic lines with sensitive conviction that was truly moving.
Dickens’ novel is what gives many of us our first and lasting impression of the French Revolution. Fiction (which he based on Carlyle’s book The French Revolution) has impregnated fact and made itself into a durable myth that seems more true than reality. In some respects, it is a melodramatic portrayal, particularly in respect of the Marquis de St-Evrémond, Charles’ wicked uncle, who is stabbed in his château after a life of atrocious crime. To be fair, the French nobility was not an idle or wholly useless class. Though forbidden by law from following a trade (yes, really) many were military officers, or patrons of the arts, authors, scientists, innovators in agriculture and manufacturing, explorers and benefactors who set up charities. The two great causes of resentment against them were that they owned all the land and they were exempt from paying tax. The latter grievance is one that reverberates very loudly with our own society in the present day. Rich people who avoid paying any tax can’t expect to be popular. Watch out for the guillotine, Sir Philip Green!
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