I first encountered Charles Dickens as a seven year old seeing A Christmas Carol in a little theatre-in-the-round in Croydon. In my mind’s eye I can recall the lonely and terrible figure of Scrooge on his chair. I later saw the great David Lean films, from which again the abiding memories were of isolated and ravaged figures – Miss Havisham in Great Expectations and Fagin in his cell in Oliver Twist.
I had no notion at all that Dickens was funny, until I was 13 and my grandmother relieved the tedium of chicken pox by thrusting a copy of The Pickwick Papers into my hands. I fell in love with Samuel Pickwick, that gloriously credible example of benevolence, but the vivacious world through which he passes, that landscape populated with an unending sequence of hilariously extreme characters, opened up a world of experience to me of which I wanted more.
Inspired, I then worked my way over many years through an oeuvre which I found almost never, even at its darkest, wholly without that fantastical comedy unique to Dickens. His people were funny and dangerous at the same time: even the benevolent ones had a rude vitality which was almost Chaucerian.
Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that his works were highly theatrical. Had Dickens written plays? I – a horribly stage-struck youth – wanted to know. He had, but they were terrible. So desperately in love was he with the theatre of his own time, that he simply imitated it. If he couldn’t write his own plays, then other people were delighted to do it for him. His novels were endlessly adapted for the stage, often to Dickens’s fury. From Pickwick onwards they provided the leading actors of the day with wonderful parts, but their versions were, for the most part, travesties.
It has always been problematic to reduce those thronging canvases into a single play. In 1980, the Royal Shakespeare Company bit the bullet with 8 ½ hours of Nicholas Nickleby over two evenings, which at last did justice to the scope of a Dickens novel. The adaptor, David Edgar, made the inspired decision to preserve the narration, divided up among the company. To an even greater extent than with most novels, the narrator’s voice in a Dickens novel – sometimes Dickens himself, sometimes one of the characters – is a crucial part of the experience of reading the book.
Dickens often seems to reach out beyond the characters and plot to speak directly to the reader. An adaptation which ignores this loses a great deal. My first Dickens, A Christmas Carol, at the Lincoln Theatre Royal in 1973, was a solid and honourable rendition of the book, but we had no way of conveying the extraordinary immediacy that Dickens creates in his famous conversational opening: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that… Marley was as dead as a doornail. Mind, I don’t mean to say that I know of my own knowledge what there is particularly dead about a doornail. Myself, I might have been inclined to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.”
Dickens – who was a wonderful actor – solved the problem of bringing A Christmas Carol and the other novels to the stage by reading them out loud to enormous audiences. He was a brilliant mimic and brought each of his characters to dazzling life. But the greatest aspect of these performances was that the narrator spoke directly to the audience.
In the various one-man shows that I’ve performed in recent years, I’ve narrated the lives of great men – Oscar Wilde, Dickens himself and Shakespeare – jumping in and out of their characters. This is essentially what Dickens did, and, taking his performing version of A Christmas Carol as our starting point, that’s what we are doing at the Arts Theatre, introducing a new character to the well known roster of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim: the story-teller, who, in the novel, is in constant communication with the reader. When the Ghost of Christmas Past first appears, he is, Dickens tells his reader, “as close to it as I am now to you,” adding “and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”
One has to jump from character to character, from emotion to emotion, like a mountain goat. But to a lesser or a greater extent, this mercurial quality is everywhere in Dickens. There is a general sense of him as being hearty, vigorous, solid, earthy, but in so much of his work, in fact there is an almost psychedelic quality, constantly morphing, transforming, rapidly changing. Nowhere is this more so than in A Christmas Carol, whose great power has always been, from its first appearance in 1843, its ability to melt the heart. It is as if the conscious mind is so beguiled by the constant shifts and twists – the conjuring tricks – of the narrative that the emotions are taken unawares. That’s the hope, anyway.