Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist
Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett
Music by Gerard McBurney
In association with the American Repertory Theater and Theatre for a New Audience
Main Season · Roda Theatre
May 11–June 24, 2007
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Inspired by the vivid world of the Victorian music-hall, Neil Bartlett’s staging of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist uses the original language of Dickens’ novel to dramatize one of the most deeply felt stories ever written about childhood. A cast of unforgettable characters brings the underworld of 19th-century London to thrilling life—a city teeming with danger and fear—all seen through the eyes of an astonished child. By turns comic and tragic, musical and dramatic, Bartlett’s Twist was a runaway success in London. His works have been seen and celebrated around the world. We’re thrilled to present his Berkeley Rep debut with this sensational production.
Charles Dickens · Author
Neil Bartlett · Adaptor and Director
Gerard McBurney · Composer
Rae Smith · Scenic and Costume Design
Simon Deacon · Music Adaptor and Director
Struan Leslie · Movement Director
Scott Zielinski · Lighting Design
David Remedios · Sound Design
Chris De Camillis · Production Stage Manager
Laura Hitt · Dialect Coach
Deborah Brown Casting · Casting
Remo Airaldi · Mr. Bumble
Steven Boyer · Noah Claypole / Tom Chitling
Gregory Derelian · Bill Sykes / Mrs. Sowerberry
Thomas Derrah · Mr. Sowerberry / Mr. Grimwig / Mr. Fang
Ned Eisenberg · Fagin
Carson Elrod · John Dawkins / The Artful Dodger
Jennifer Ikeda · Nancy
Elizabeth Jasicki · Rose Brownlow / Charlotte Sowerberry
Will LeBow · Mr. Brownlow
Karen MacDonald · Mrs. Bumble
Craig Pattison · Charley Bates
Lucas Steele · Toby Crackit
Michael Wartella · Oliver Twist
“Engagingly grungy and entertaining…Excellent peformances…A wonderfully theatrical box set, starkly lit and full of hidden trapdoors, cranks, levers and other fetchingly low-tech devices…A buoyantly sly score infuses the action with bumptious, sentimental and ominous tunes played by a ragged trio. A striking, even captivating production.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Amid all the inventive direction and diverting theatrics, we hear Dickens at his rabble-rousing, hyperbolic best. Everything in Oliver Twist is so dark, so mean and so biting, it’s funny—by design. For all the grimness, there’s abundant humor.”—Inside Bay Area
“Intoxicating! A page-turner. Every scene leaves us dangling expectantly for the next…This dirty finger-nailed firecracker of a production creates something both dramatically vivid and politically engaging out of its source material.”—SF Weekly
“Wildly innovative and thoroughly engaging…a faithful retelling of the Oliver Twist story, but the unique and colorful style make it a fresh and exciting experience…It’s a wild and rollicking production, stylized to give the feel of a Victorian English music hall potboiler.”—Contra Costa Times
“An astounding coup de grace. The fabulous, ensemble cast of 13, playing multiple roles, presents an old-fashioned dramatization of the Dickens’ classic performed in no way that you’ve ever seen done before. The characters thrillingly come to life. You’ll positively be mesmerized.”—KGO-AM
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Melodrama is a dramatic style which has, over the years, fallen into disfavor. Its penchant for heightened states of emotion, florid rhetoric, actions that seem obvious or unbelievable, characters who are wholly good or bad—all these features seem inauthentic to our current, reality based sensibilities. The very word has become synonymous with “too much” or “over the top” or “untrue.” When trying to appear intelligent, we frequently champion the sleek, clear lines of tragedy over the wild mix of sentiments and style inherent in melodrama.
For Charles Dickens and his large, rapt audience, the opposite was true. With each new installment of his novels (most were released chapter by chapter in newspapers and magazines), readers were left hanging to discover what wild twists of plot, what dastardly doings, what morally outrageous events would be revealed in the next episode. They waited with baited breath to see if the invariably innocent, idealistic heroes of Dickens’ stories would survive the vicious and interminable suffering inflicted by the villain.
Yet the key to Dickens’ success was his ability to marry a terrifically entertaining writing style with a vivid and shocking description of the truth. His searing, moving portrayals of people trapped in the social landscape of 19th century London have left an indelible memory on anyone who has read his books. He knew first-hand about the horror of child labor, knew about the tragedy behind every bankruptcy, knew about the rapacious appetite of men whose sole purpose in life was to acquire more wealth. His unparalleled popularity (his books have never gone out of print) was based not only in his ability to escape reality through gorgeous prose, but to depict hyper-realistic, epic scenarios that capture the titanic force of history and the universal qualities of human behavior.
This ingenious aesthetic strategy is being employed to this very day. Is the melodramatic technique employed by Dickens so different from the one used by some of our best modern writers? Are the twists of fate in Oliver Twist so different from those in Amores Perros? Is the exploitation of stereotype used to create the indelible portrait of the Jewish villain Fagin any different from those used to create his modern Italian counterpart, Tony Soprano? Is our collective yearning for a happy ending to Oliver’s story any different from what we feel at the end of Angels in America?
How ironic, then, that what British Director Neil Bartlett has done in restoring Oliver Twist to its melodramatic roots feels surprisingly radical. Digging into the original text, uncovering the contradictory mores of Victorian England, re-conceiving the entire event as a human “penny dreadful” (the original pulp fiction), Bartlett and his collaborators have attempted to reassert the vitality of Oliver Twist. They have created an event whose force is not beneath the surface, but is a part of the surface. Embracing the fact that melodrama was the perfect vehicle for Dickens to describe his world, Bartlett and company seek to celebrate the form itself, with all its disparate elements and stylistic choices. By doing so, they have de-mythologized Oliver Twist, reclaiming the piece as a dark, wild, strange, funny, melodramatic entertainment. And as a piece of art.
Staging Dickens: Making a new stage version of Oliver Twist
By Neil Bartlett
Any new stage version of a story which the audience feels they not only know but own before the curtain even rises has to do two apparently contradictory things. It has to deliver all the famous bits (so that no one feels shortchanged), but also has to make the audience feel that they are encountering the story anew, afresh; that they are hearing and seeing things which they either never knew or had forgotten were there.
The first decision taken in making this adaptation was that it would be made out of Dickens’ original language and nothing but. With the exception of one or two short phrases necessitated by the telescoping of the novel’s plot, this is a decision which has been abided by. Indeed, the extraordinary energy and volatility, the sadistic black comedy and sheer dramatic guts of Dickens’ actual sentences are the raisons d’être of this piece. Returning to the original words—even for the singing in the show—was the main way in which I hoped to avoid any bowdlerization of the tale. I wanted the show to be as alarming, as compelling and as wickedly comic as Dickens’ words are. Of course, which words I have chosen to include, and which words I have chosen to omit, reveal what I personally care most about in this story. I hope.
The question of tone
“It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodrama, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his bed, weighed down by misfortune; the next scene regales the audience with comic song.”—Oliver Twist, Chapter 17
What do we mean by the word ‘Dickensian’? Not, I think, simply subject matter taken from the lower depths of urban poverty. Rather, I think we mean a distinctive way of dramatizing what is seen.
The first nineteenth-century stagings of Oliver Twist—some made even before the final parts of the original, serialized novel had been published—have scripts of quite extraordinary ferocity and brevity. One of them gets the whole proceedings down to 30 handwritten pages, and still finds time for plenty of rambling low comedy from the Bumbles. They all seek to unashamedly achieve one objective—namely, to rouse the audience. To achieve this end, they employ the most remarkable combinations of comedy with horror, satire with sentiment. They demand that the audience enjoys the most alarming leaps of dramatic tone. They are also very fond of (and good at) employing those most powerful forms of theatrical shorthand—the baldly stated moral, the tableau and the melodrama. In doing all of this they are of course entirely in keeping with Dickens’ own dramatic and dramatizing instincts in Oliver Twist.
Dickens is, paradoxically, the most serious of writers, in that he takes this task of engaging us, his audience, with such wholehearted seriousness. I wanted to create an adaptation that would not shy away from this seriousness, but rather relish it; that would demand of its actors they engage with their audience above all else. This is why the script does not try to shift Dickens into some solid or polite middle ground of dialogue-based, psychologized ‘literary’ theatre, but lets his story move alarmingly (demandingly) through all its intensely-felt and highly-colored original shifts of theatrical tone. It is only when melodrama is allowed to rub shoulders with psychodrama, when sensationalism combines with fierce and socially committed satire, that you arrive in the particular world of the dramatic imagination that we can only describe with the tautology ‘Dickensian.’
“Sudden shiftings of scene, and rapid changes of time and place, are not only sanctioned in books, by long usage, but are by many considered a great art.”—Oliver Twist, Chapter 17
The first visual and physical inspiration for our set was a visit to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds. This not only renewed my interest in the unheimlich appeal of waxworks, especially those depicting extreme violence, but also triggered in designer Rae Smith’s imagination a connection between the sensationalist mechanics of Dickens’ plot—its combination of creaky contrivance with uncanny power—with the mechanical toys which we now know as ‘Penny Dreadful’ machines. These are the sinister glass-fronted boxes which, in response to a child inserting the required coin, bring to life miniature tableaux of haunted houses, historic crimes or mildly erotic misdemeanors. One of these boxes, emptied and magnified, as if by a child’s imagination, provided the basic setting. The early-19th century theatrical vocabulary of fly ropes, trapdoors, footlights and two-dimensional scenery also influenced the design of the show, allowing and indeed encouraging a script which cuts and dissolves from scene to scene without any establishing shots (to confuse matters by employing a cinematic vocabulary)—and, largely, without any narrative linking passages.
“The preliminaries adjusted, they proceeded with flourishes of most unmusical snatches of song, mingled with wild execrations.”—Oliver Twist, Chapter 26
The popular theatre which Dickens knew and loved was almost all, in the original sense of the word, melodrama; an evening at the theatre without live music barely existed in the first half of the 19th century. This script, too, is a melodrama, in that the telling of the story presupposes that the actors work with (and sometimes against) music in their telling of that story, and the creation of the different places and atmospheres which that story takes us to. The music is all adapted from popular early-19th century music-hall numbers contemporary with the novel, and arranged for an authentic (if somewhat alarming) early Victorian combination of violin, serpent and hurdy-gurdy.
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”—Miss Prism, The Importance of Being Earnest
This is a story with a single overriding desire; to find a family for its orphan hero. Every scene in the book can be read in this light; every character too. In the absence of Oliver’s mother, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry—even Noah Claypole and Charlotte—all attempt, in their various twisted ways, to mother him. Fagin and Mr. Brownlow, in their archetypically opposite worlds, construct surrogate families for Oliver. Everyone (even Mr. Grimwig) is convinced that they know the right way for the boy to live. All of these conflicting dreams of family life, so deeply rooted in their creator’s own childhood, are powerful; Nancy’s dream of a possible home for Oliver—her determination that he will have the childhood she knows has been stolen from her—is so fierce that it kills her.
In editing Dickens’ labyrinthine plot, I wanted to arrive at a script whose economy would encourage the actors to concentrate on trying to get back to the blunt realities of the original cast-list. Nancy is, after all, a teenage prostitute with a violent owner, not a musical-comedy star; the boys Fagin says he finds sleeping rough at Kings Cross are very like the teenagers who still sleep rough there; Bill is a violent housebreaker and a coward; Fagin is Jewish, and his vicious rage is that of someone who lives excluded from everything we might conceivably call society.
Some of the events of the great final working-out of the story may surprise audiences who only know it from films. I’ve kept what for me is the greatest and strangest scene of the book, where, on the night before his death, Fagin goes mad with terror, and in his madness realizes that Oliver is ‘somehow the cause of all this.’ I’ve taken Mr. Brownlow and Rose seriously. I’ve dared to kill off not just Nancy and Bill, but Fagin and the Dodger, as Dickens does. I’ve even dared to believe, as Dickens did, that after all the strange violent parodies of family life that claim him—the brutal workhouse of the Bumbles, the gothic funeral-parlor of the Sowerberries, the nightmare inversion of all maternal values in Fagin’s den—the motherless Oliver’s destiny is the one we must all, despite our evidence to the contrary, believe in: safety.