Northern Stage’s Great Expectations again poses questions on what we want from an adaptation of a familiar Dickens novel. In this case the creation of a consistent mood and style through ingenious design, well-judged use of projections and integrated ensemble playing has to be weighed against major losses in plot and character and rather low-key characterisation.
The tone is set in the early scenes. Pip’s encounter with Magwitch, the convict, is presented on film, underscored by dramatic music (both thanks to John Alder), and the following dream-like sequence surrounds Pip with the figures and voices of his past, not unlike the famous painting of Dickens and his creations. This is highly promising, but the narrative proper begins disappointingly: Uncle Pumblechook is subsumed into Mr. Wopsle, the whole glorious Christmas dinner sequence goes missing and the capture of Magwitch is made less dramatic by the excision of Compeyson, the other convict.
The later reduction of Herbert Pocket to a cipher of snobbery makes one wonder if adaptor John Clifford harbours some animus against Dickens’ more entertaining characters. Certainly the plot becomes simplicity itself – centring on Pip’s relationships and little else – though part of the crucial Compeyson plot surfaces as a belated narrative.
Despite these drawbacks, the presentation of Great Expectations as Pip’s dream-like recollections works well on its own terms. Director Neil Murray is his own designer and the look of the production – Pip surrounded by grey-clad figures on all sides – fits his concept perfectly. Pip’s arrival in London is an all too convincing nightmare, with everything from piles of books and heads on stakes to swirling crowds of plaintiffs and hucksters, out of which the sanctuary of Jaggers’ office emerges.
Neil Murray underplays the grotesque in Dickens’ characterisation, sometimes to good effect. Sue Maund is a remarkably sane Miss Havisham, but her scenes with Julia Dalkin’s contemptuous Estella in Act 2 are the more powerful for the release of previously controlled passion. Similarly Jack Power’s Jaggers, missing the mysterious authority of the early scenes, grows into a character of distinct moral stature. Jim Kitson’s nicely epicene Wopsle and Tony Neilson’s excellent, if sadly reduced, Wemmick are the nearest things to Dickensian character comedy.
Matt Blair, the mature Pip and narrator of the early events, and Peter Peverley, as Young Pip, look disconcertingly of an age, but Peverley, in particular, has an engaging manner which also serves him well in salvaging what little remains of the character of Herbert Pocket.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the Gala Theatre, Durham)