Complex and Strange

A TALE OF TWO CITIES adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by James Dacre, Theatre Royal, Brighton, 1st Nov, 7.45pm.

I guess you're probably getting sick of my bringing into these reviews my Australian point of view, but here goes (sorry), one more time: I loved reading Dickens in Australia because if Australia was empty and flat, Dickens was teeming and colourful and funny and filled with struggle and fight and somehow the characters and the situations were interlinked, one a metaphor for the other. The last thing I wanted to admit was that empty and flat was me.

Coming to live in England and the Dickens magic became diluted. What had seemed a flight of fancy from afar transformed into reality up close. Where were those metaphors now? Seventeen years later, England doesn't seem so much like a foreign country and maybe the Dickens I used to know is re-emerging.

The problem with empty and flat is that you have to go a long way and try very hard to find any kind of conflict. Isn't that a good thing? Not if you want to write novels or put on plays. There's a basic rule - get the conflict on the page, stage, in the frame (take your pick). Dickens goes one better - he gets the conflict right inside the character. That internal struggle, the fight against the terrible unfairness of the hand the world had dealt, reflects Dickens' own life. Chances are he could only write under the crushing pressure of extreme and, as he became more and more successful, self-imposed, deadlines. All this is well known, a cliche of a life now as famous as the books, the humiliation of the 12 year old forced to leave school and work in a boot polish factory.

So many characters in a fight to the finish with themselves, with their own natures. Dickens so often makes a virtue of steady, solid, hard work, of honest toil, of quiet dedication, of which Charles Darnay in this tale is a paragon, that the assumption has to be that this is a character trait Dickens himself was incapable of developing; that he had a lifelong need to do his work in a kind of white hot madness, that calm and steady was beyond him and this he found further enraging.

This kind of internal conflict is fine, if you're a novelist or poet. You can take your readers right inside. What's more, he was a master of the big set piece, the overarching metaphor that expressed outwardly the inner life. This novel begins with two of these set pieces, not included in the play, the first concerning a stage coach, toiling up Shooters Hill en route to Dover, in the misty dark, and the occupants hear the sound of a horse, ridden at speed to overtake them. Not only could it be a highwayman, it is also the sound of the revolution, inexorably galloping to engulf them all. The second introduces the scene in Paris, when a barrel of wine falls from a cart and smashes on the cobbles. The wine which spills is immediately collected by a multitude, poor, starving, not letting even a drop go to waste. The wine is the revolution, injected orally, an intoxicating strain.

A play, on the other hand, well that's a whole different kettle of fish. A Tale of Two Cities was unusual among Dickens' novels in that its plot and themes were taken from other sources. He usually just made his plots up. (Contemporary readers also noted the relative lack of humour.) Dickens took this story more seriously than usual. Taking things seriously was also, incidentally, a characteristic of melodrama, of which Dickens was a fan and practitioner.

Melodrama is a form in which you tell (or show) what you can't act. Ibsen and other dramatists of the late 18th Century revolutionised drama by acting what you can't tell. And a bit like birds are the living incarnation of dinosaurs, musicals are the modern incarnation of melodrama; massively popular and successful, just as this production was joyful, engaging and involving, not least the inclusion of local actors, who were seamlessly integrated into the ensemble.

And as much as I really enjoyed this adaptation, the actors' verve and commitment standing for Dickens' lively prose, the references to French art of the period, the muted colours, the large scale of the set, the stylised movement, the understated but atmospheric music, the efficient story-telling, the danger is that something which begins as complex and challenging can become spectacle, teeming life no more than visual richness, inner conflict a sort of emotional shorthand, a collective response.

To return to where I began, my Australian origins. I am, of course, an immigrant. And the novel is, in a way, about immigration, or more, accurately, about the interaction between two cities, two countries about to be at war. Dickens spent a lot of time in Paris and Boulogne while he was writing Little Dorrit, the novel immediately preceding this. It's easy to imagine the agitated state he was in while writing a novel about his own (disguised) childhood, incessantly walking the streets of Paris, he may have glimpsed the kind of hysteria which overtook the revolutionaries, and this inner conflict, a madness of creativity, is the conflict he ultimately gives to Sydney Carton, the hero of A Tale of Two Cities. The external conflict, the French Revolution, finds its complement in Carton's internal need for revolution, for change, for struggle.

Dickens, influenced by Paris, creates an English character imbued with the spirit of revolution, with implications both good and bad. It's not possible for any city, any country, any person to live in splendid isolation. The links are complex and strange.

Paul Corcoran