The latest theatrical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, by the touring Consortium Theatre Company and Royal & Derngate Northamptonshire production, dynamically stages the collision between hope and despair that Dickens first penned in 1859.
The famous opening that delights readers opened the play as well, with each character reciting a clause, facing their audience under the glare of white light. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…'A Tale of Two Cities portrays a world in turmoil as the bourgeoisie and the plebeian classes revolt against the absolutist monarchy of Louis XVI. The philosophies of the French Revolution are applauded until the Reign of Terror ushers in new tyranny, and the lives of the Manette family and Charles Darnay are threatened. Only a self-pitying drunk lawyer, Sydney Carton, can restore their peace, if he sacrifices himself.
A Tale of Two Cities is full of omnipresent shadows, a feature which is used extremely well in this production. Merry drinkers sing in the darkness as Sydney toasts his love-rival in a stark shaft of light; flames of torches distort the faces of anger and pain into mirrored grimaces as the French Revolution becomes the Terror. Sydney, though, remains throughout under the eye of light, regardless of the darker thoughts that haunt him. His only moment in shadow is, poignantly, his self-sacrifice. Paul Keogan's lighting is superbly atmospheric, partnered beautifully with Rachel Portman's sombre musical score.
Joseph Timms excellently portrays Sydney Carton, and Jacob Ifan gives an equally outstanding performance as Darnay. Miss Pross is a great source of humour, and triumphant in her defeat of Madame Defarge. Among the stellar cast of actors there is, perhaps, the one great difficulty of exchanging identities between British and French, the latter nationality being distinguished mostly by change of dress. Only Madame Defarge features a French accent, one which lacks conviction. More strangely still is the solitary Scottish member of the Parisian Citizen cohort, who warned Lucie Manette against loitering for her lover at the prison gates. (I'm reminded of the London working class accent we often hear attributed to the cast of Les Misérables, especially Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, remedied recently by Sacha Baron Cohen's attempts to take on a French accent in Tom Hooper's 2012 film). Lucie Manette, in keeping with many other Dickensian/Victorian heroines, is performed with sweet devotion. Though the modern feminist in me recoils at such simple characterisation, it is, a least, in keeping with Dickens's original creation.
This is a minor criticism for an otherwise accomplished production. The set itself – minimalistic, as is to be expected of the theatre – transformed seamlessly between courtroom, house, and gaol. This minimalism, in great contrast to Dickens's own rich evocation of setting, served to reduce the differences between London and Paris, while London nevertheless was home to the domestic and Paris host to tyranny. Furthermore, the dominating backdrop offered a permanent and pertinent reminder that dismantling power is only re-assembled by new power; windows opened, and the judges sentencing Darnay looked down upon his collapsed figure in the centre of the stage with hate. This is just one example of many chilling scenes.
This paints a bleak picture, but A Tale of Two Cities has much to say about love and redemption, lessons that were not missed by James Dacre's direction. It is not a production reserved for the Victorianists among us; it is enjoyable and thought-provoking for any audience. If only an encore for Sydney Carton were possible.
Hannah-Freya Blake is a PhD Student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at Leeds Trinity University. Her research considers the appropriation of eighteenth-century male Gothic in mid-Victorian Sensation fiction. She co-organised and presented at the recent LCVS conference, "Pernicious Trash", has published on the subject of vagina dentata in vampire fiction, and loves the dark worlds of nineteenth century culture and fiction.
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