Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Theatre Review: Vanity Fair, Pearl Theater Company, New York City

How do you take an eight hundred page 1840s novel and make it digestible in two and a half hours for the modern stage? According to playwright Kate Hamill and director Eric Tucker, through multi-roling, pointed exposition and random inclusions of dances like the Macarena and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The result is, ironically, the theatrical equivalent of a novel that needs a good edit, skipping from entertaining to irritating to downright perplexing in the course of a scene.

What the production gets right

Scene Selection:
Hamill shows an adept adaptor’s eye in her choice of scenes from Thackeray’s original. Those who had not read the novel were never in danger of losing the train of a complex plot and the emotional pacing allowed for more character development than you might have expected, given the role hopping of most of the cast. The moment Emmy (Joey Parsons) and Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe) share, discussing how much they miss their children, is a great example of the lightness of the script’s touch here, boiling down Thackeray’s lengthy prose into tight and relatable dialogue.

Becky Sharp:
Hamill herself takes on the role of the infamous Becky Sharp and outshines the rest of the cast, contorting her expressions to resemble those of Thackeray's illustrations and bringing out the character’s humanity as well as her manipulative nature.

The cast-operated curtains and wheeling furniture makes for rapid scene transitions and is ideal for a play that covers multiple locations and years. The staging evokes the swirl and momentum of the fair – the literal fair Becky and co. attend early in the novel and the fair of society, everyone wanting something, everyone selling something, all clamouring to be heard.

What was less successful

The play’s actors took on many roles, playing not only cross-gender, but once cross-species with Parsons taking a brief turn as the Pitts’ cat. This worked for the most part but took a turn for the pantomimic in the male actors’ depiction of women. In this modern retelling with a clear feminist agenda, men playing women for cheap laughs felt out of place and awkward. Debargo Sanyal as Briggs, Brad Heberlee as Miss Jemima and Ryan Quinn as Miss Pinkerton were the main culprits. I couldn’t help but wish the cast had just played their roles with total commitment and realism.

The crossdressing fit a wider pattern of the cast being too reliant on, and almost desperate for, audience validation and laughter. At several junctures, as mentioned above, they broke out their twentieth and twenty first century dance moves, which added little to the production beyond a confused tittering from the crowd. It looked more fun for them than it was for us and bewildered the audience, rather than making Vanity Fair more accessible. Somebody should have told them to cut it out in rehearsal.

The ‘Moral’:
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has no hero and no moral, facts which this product was keen to remind us of. But Hamill does introduce a moral of her own – that we should not be too quick to judge those who have gone before us, as one day others will look back and judge us. The idea is good, the delivery heavy handed and the point belaboured. It made me wish, as with many parts of the show, that the production team and cast would only trust us — trust the audience to ‘get’ it, to find humour without slapstick, to remain engaged without being spoonfed.

Do you know of any other NYC plays you think the Secret Victorianist should review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: Fingersmith, Sarah Waters (2002)

Unwanted wives incarcerated in asylums, unwanted babies farmed out to criminals, a drawing master seducing his young lady student and a scholarly uncle sequestering his heiress ward from the rest of the world. If you’re well versed in the building blocks of Victorian sensation novels, there’s much about Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith that may seem familiar.

Yet this 2002 thriller manages to defy expectations in new and exciting ways – not just by introducing sensational plotlines and dialogue that would have been inadmissible to Collins, Braddon and Reade (a central female/female romance, a bibliographical study of pornography, plenty of ‘fucks’, ‘cunts’, and, my personal favourite, ‘fucksters’), but by forcing us to reassess who we can trust and the false security our previous literary knowledge might have given us.

The novel starts in the unforgiving world of Borough, where men and women eat by stealing purses and skinning dogs. A debonair trickster known as ‘Gentleman’ has a plan - petty thief Susan Trinder, daughter of a murderess, must leave London for Briar, a country house near Maidenhead, to become maid to Maud Lilly and help him steal her away along with her fortune.

Sarah Waters (1966-)
This is the point at which we expect Sue to enter the Victorian world we know from novels – a world of hierarchy, etiquette and morality – but soon it becomes clear that she is in much more danger here, and it is dirty, amoral Borough that is the novel’s pattern for love and domesticity.

What comes next is a few hundred pages of twists and turns, double crossing and, at times, brutality. Could it have done with a more extensive edit? Yes, but Waters keep you guessing to the very end and reading fast to the finish line. The title Fingersmith hints at thievery, midwifery and female masturbation, yet it also conjures up the idea of a wordsmith, playing with readers’ emotions and stirring up their imaginations – appropriate given the novel’s final moments, and the original conception of sensation fiction.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

A Dickensian Master Class in Powerful Openings: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The opening to Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities is so famous today that the words seem timeless, even as its themes – a polarisation of political opinion and a desire to designate everything as either good or evil – feel peculiarly timely.

Dickens’s 100+ word sentence is one that would make most English language teachers blanche, so what is it about this opening that readers find so evocative? And what can we learn from this bending of grammatical rules?

Repetition isn’t always a sin
As writers, we’re often warned against repeating words or sentence formations. Yet parallel structures can be powerful when employed wisely.  As a writer you need to be aware of the effect this has. Dickens’s repeated clauses make the passage feel solemn, liturgical, and even funereal – fitting, in light of what’s to come.

Keep your readers guessing
Readers love to make predictions about what’s coming next – in your plot and in your prose. By pairing opposites (‘best’ and ‘worst’, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’) Dickens allows us to guess the word that will complete the next clause. This is so effective that he doesn’t even need to include the word ‘hell’. It hangs in the air, an unspoken threat.

Lead with drama
Dickens leads with this series of hyperbolic statements only to undercut what he has just said, labelling these descriptors as the protestations of the ‘noisiest authorities’. Yet it is the catchy opening that we remember. As writers, we are often advised to start our novels and chapters with something memorable but we should be aware of how this can alter our prose’s meaning and reception. 

Are there any other famous passages you would like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.