Before working on this production, I, like so many, had Technicolor memories of the poor orphaned Oliver and his nearly magical journey to a safe and nurturing home. My fondest recollections of the 1968 award-winning musical film adaptation of Dickens' novel were the comically inept and somewhat toothless Mr. Bumble; the charming, crafty and colorful Fagin; and the saucy Nancy - a tavern-wench with a heart of gold. Who wouldn't want to join Fagin's merry gang of singing urchins when viewed through the lens of a Cinemascope epic? Years later, when I returned to the original serialized novel, I was taken aback by the unabashed brutality with which Dickens treated his subject. Though sometimes reaching to such extremes as to be comically absurd, it was brutal nonetheless. The dark malevolence and violence of the seedy pre-Victorian underworld that Dickens so accurately describes in his novel allow the few glimmers of hope that radiate in this tale to shine that much more brightly.
In his adaptation for the stage, Neil Bartlett has artfully included much of the nasty underbelly of Dickens' novel which is typically lost in other adaptations. He has done this, however, without losing the highly theatrical nature of Dickens' biting sarcasm, cutting wit and humor and social commentary. Raised in a well-educated and decidedly middle class society, the young Dickens' world was turned upside-down when, at age 12, he was forced to work in a shoe-polish factory while his family was placed into a debtors' prison for debts incurred by his thriftless father. Though it was a relatively short period of his life, the experience scarred the adolescent Dickens and shaped the man and the writer he would become. The ghosts of his time among the uneducated and disadvantaged masses permeated much of his life's work - both literary and civic - and are quite palpable in Oliver Twist, his second major literary endeavor, penned when Dickens was only 25 years old.
In Bartlett's adaptation (as in Dickens' original text), we are given the opportunity to explore anew these iconic characters that have been indelibly stamped into our common cultural consciousness. Oliver is not merely an ineffectual waifish innocent, but rather a child who attempts to do what is right and honorable in the face of adversities that might have crushed a boy of lesser character. The Nancy of the novel, a young world-weary prostitute trapped in a cruel relationship, is initially cold towards the young orphan and announces that she wishes he were dead because his presence "turns me against myself." Fagin is a manipulative, cruel, self-serving old man who creates a bastardization of a family for his "good boys" - good boys who, he notes thankfully, "never bring any awkward stories to light" when they are caught. As Bartlett states at the conclusion of his play:
This tale's involved the best - and worst - shades of our natures;
The ugliest - also, the loveliest - of all God's created creatures;
...Namely, in little Oliver, the principle of Good;
Good, surviving, and triumphing at the last;
And Hope...Hope flourishing, where all hope was past.
-Brian B. Crowe, Director
Notes from the Playwright:
From MAKING A NEW STAGE VERSION
OF OLIVER TWIST
''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 way of perceiving things, a distinctive way of dramatizing what is seen.
The development of this adaptation was much informed by a reading of many of the earliest stage versions of the novel held in the Lord Chamberlain's Collection of the British Library. These nineteenth-century stagings - some made even before the final parts of the original, serialized novel had been published - have scripts of quite extraordinary ferocity and brevity… They all seek to unashamedly achieve one objective, namely to rouse the audience. They want to provoke laughter, horror and ghoulish fascination; to stimulate sincere concern for the plight of orphaned children and sincere belief in the survival of innocence. 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... In doing all of this they are of course entirely in keeping with Dickens' own dramatic and dramatizing instincts in Oliver Twist.
...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'.
...Indeed, the extraordinary energy and volatility, the sadistic black comedy and sheer dramatic guts of Dickens' actual sentences are the raisons d'etre 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 bowdlerisation of the tale. I wanted the show to be as alarming, as compelling and as wickedly comic as Dickens' words are.
...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-parlour 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.
- Neil Bartlett, Playwright
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre