Finding theatrical equivalents for Charles Dickens’ “all human life is here” three-volume blockbusters has never been easy. The traditional approach was to fillet the original novel to produce an effective piece of theatre while discarding characters and incidents wholesale. In the last 25 years or so, however, playwrights have dared to put the narrative text first and dispense with conventional characterisation (as in Stephen Jeffries’ Hard Times) or break through all time restraints (as David Edgar did in his award-winning seven-hour Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC).
Giles Havergal tries a different tack with his adaptation of David Copperfield, filtering all through the memory and reflections of David himself – a very valid method given the semi-autobiographical first-person narrative of the original. Two Davids hold the stage almost throughout, the younger enacting what the elder recalls. In Havergal’s British premiere production (the play was first staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2001), things comes to life only in the second half.
Too much of David’s childhood passes like a cartoon strip. Rupert Frazer introduces an event, then smiles indulgently, raises a concerned eyebrow or repeats a key phrase as his younger self (Mark Rice-Oxley), aided by a troupe of children, plays out an abbreviated version of the scene. There is much running and bouncing and Richard Taylor’s effective music score is over-worked in creating atmosphere. Ellen Sheean, formidably eccentric as Betsy Trotwood, relishes the character’s more central role and Patti Clare’s Mrs Micawber is the embodiment of fractured gentility and desperate loyalty, but others in Dickens’ gallery of grotesques are a bit subdued.
After the interval, things improve in every way. Scenes merge and fade into each other more often without linking narrative: the pathos of Dora’s death connects with the tragedy of the Peggotty family, Micawber’s plot against Uriah Heep moves seamlessly from London to Canterbury. Emotionally powerful outbursts animate hitherto stock characters like Dan Peggotty (Peter Rylands) and Wickfield (Timothy Kightley) and the interjections of the older David are developed with subtlety and coherence until he finally comes of age as the character himself.
The second half also gains much from the counterpoint of Candida Benson’s Agnes, poised between serenity and suffering, and David’s “child-wife” Dora, with Saskia Butler turning one of Dickens’ most irritating heroines into a real character with a convincing world-view.
The vast open spaces of Simon Higlett’s seedy setting give scope for parallel action, only partially exploited, while the thinking behind the vaguely Edwardian costumes is hard to fathom. It’s only fair to point out that the enthusiasm of the first-night audience put to shame my somewhat tepid response to this thoughtful adaptation.