Jun 19, 2011

Dickens on Stage: The Library Theatre’s Hard Times

Library Theatre Hard Times

Last week I went to see the Library Theatre’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Given my previous experiences with their productions, my expectations were quite high, but I was not in the least disappointed. Coincidentally, all the productions I’ve seen so far were Victorian; while I’m sure they do contemporary theatre just as well, I could seriously watch them bring the 19th century to life forever. The tone and atmosphere are always absolutely spot on (not to mention the setting and costumes and props and all that). The Library Theatre Company has quickly become one of my favourite things about Manchester – and certainly one of the things I’m going to miss the most.

Hard Times was a promenade production that took place at Murray’s Mill, a disused Victorian cotton mill in the outskirts of the city centre (talk about a perfect setting). What this means is that the audience follows the story as it unfolds through several locations within the mill. Before the actual play begins, we are invited to walk through the mill’s basement and be immersed in a reconstruction of Coketown. Then, on the upper floor, we follow the actors as they move from Mr. Gradgrind’s school to his home; from Josiah Bounderby’s mansion to the bank; from Stephen Blackpool’s house to the streets of Coketown; and finally to Mr. Sleary’s circus for the final scenes.

Library Theatre Hard Times
Photo Credit

The cast were all extremely impressive, but I was particularly taken by Alice O’Connell who played Louisa Gradgrind. As I said when I posted about the novel, Dickens is no Wilkie Collins when it comes to writing female characters, and the women in Hard Times felt rather more like types than human beings. However, O’Connell played the troubled but mostly restrained and collected Louisa with extreme expressiveness: her rare displays of emotion were perfectly visible but never over the top, and she made the character seem more human, more complex, and more nuanced. The differences in demeanour between her and Sissy Jupe, for example, were always so telling. I feel that I understand Louisa Gradgrind better after having watched this play, which I suspect is one of the best things that can be said about a performance.

I should also mention David Crellin, who plays both Stephen Blackpool and Mr Leary – his performances were so convincing that I didn’t realise at all both characters were played by the same actor until I read the program at home!

Library Theatre Hard Times
Photo Credit

When it comes to the story itself, the stage version did a great job of capturing the essence of Hard Times: the crucial scenes were all there, and the story flows very well. Though I was glad to have read the novel beforehand, my boyfriend, who had not, generally had no trouble at all following the plot. The only exception to this was – spoiler alert – Stephen Blackpool’s death. The story moves directly from Rachel asking Louisa and Sissy for help finding him to someone yelling that he has been found and bringing him over in a stretcher. It all happens so fast that it’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on if you haven’t read the novel – and a stage adaptation should never assume the audience has. I overheard someone asking their partner if Stephen had been lynched by the angry trade union members, and I can certainly see how someone new to the story would get that impression from the way the scene unfolds. But this is really just a minor point about an otherwise excellent adaptation.

Library Theatre Hard Times
Photo Credit

When we moved to Mr Leary’s circus for the play’s finale, I briefly wondered how the production would handle the fact that in the original, Tom Gradgrind is disguised by wearing rags and blackface. Generally I’m not at all in favour of historical revisions or of attempts to “clean up” the past according to modern sensibilities rather than acknowledging the historical roots of racism. However, it seemed very difficult to make this particular scene work without turning an element that is very incidental to the story into something much bigger than it actually is in the novel. Obviously the casual racism of wearing blackface can and should be contextualised, but how do you do that in a performance where every minute counts? What happened in this case was that Tom was disguised as a harlequin instead, which seemed to me a sensitive way for a modern performance to handle that scene.

The Library Theatre’s production of Hard Times has perhaps a little less bite and is generally friendlier than Dickens’ cynical and disenchanted novel. This isn’t to say that the social critique is not still very much there (the facts of the story, after all, speak for themselves), only that the irony felt somewhat gentler, and the humour a little less dark. Perhaps much of this simply has to do with the absence of Dickens’ narrative voice, which is something a stage adaptation can do nothing about. In any case, there’s nothing wrong with a play having its own tone. Hard Times the play exists side by side with the novel, and they’re both wonderful things.

You can watch a video of some of the cast speaking about the production below:

14 comments:

  1. What a wonderful review. Glad you weren't disappointed, it sounds like it was really well done :D

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  2. That looks like an amazing production!

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  3. Ana! I am terribly envious of all of the theatre you've been attending this year!

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  4. Thanks for posting the video. It was fun to see what it all looked like after reading your description. Dickens was a big fan of theatre himself. He produced and acted in plays. I think he'd love this one.

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  5. I love the theatre but never get a chance to go. It sounds like you saw a great production. Thanks for the review!

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  6. Oh Ana! I would have loved to have seen this, as Dickens is one of my very favorite authors. I still haven't ever seen a play based on one of his books, but really, really want to one day. Your review was wonderful as well, and captured just what it must have been like to see the performance. Loved seeing this today!

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  7. This must have been awesome to see. I would have loved this.

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  8. Wonderful review, Ana! I loved the fact that the scenes of the play happen in different locations and the audience moves to those locations! (If my understanding of what you said is correct). Wonderful! Whoever thought of this novel idea is a genius! The pictures you have posted are beautiful and your review is excellent as always - made me feel that I was there :) I haven't read 'Hard Times' but I remember my sister read it when she studied literature in college. I remember reading the first few lines in her book - I think it was Thomas Gadgrind saying 'Facts, facts, facts...' or something like that. I think it is one of Dickens' novels which is not as famous as the rest, and which probably deserves a bigger audience.

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  9. You know that whole "grass is always greener thing" we were just talking about--well, here's a prime example. :) Sounds like a fabulously wonderful experience, Ana! I've never read the book, and I somehow even missed your review, so I don't have a clue what it's about, but I nonetheless enjoyed your review of the play very much!

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  10. How I envy you! Real theatre with costumes and props (unlike hyper intellectual experimental theatre in Germany) and in English! :)

    I have had my difficulties with Dickens, sentimentalism and 5 page descriptions of a tree, but I have to read Hard Times for a class, so I'll at least get to see what the book is like.

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  11. looks like a great show ana ,while since I went to therate must go again myself soon ,all the best stu

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  12. Except for A Christmas Carol, I've never seen any of Dickens' work on the stage. I would love to see this!

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  13. Didn't know you live in Manchester before this but I used to live in Manchester from 2006 to 2008 and often frequent the central library. I live in the South now.

    Glad you like it!

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  14. This sounds like a lovely production. How wonderful that you have access to it while you are in Manchester.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.