Writer: Mike Poulton, from the novel by Charles Dickens
Director: James Dacre
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
A Tale of Two Cities is purportedly Charles Dickens’ favourite of his novels. It certainly tackles some very big subjects – love, loyalty, vengeance, redemption among them. It takes place in London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution. This adaptation, originally part of the Made in Northampton season from the Royal &Derngate theatre and directed by their Artistic Director, James Dacre, is now touring.
Our story opens at the Old Bailey, where Charles Darnay, a French emigré, is on trial for his life on trumped-up charges of treason. The evidence against him is discredited, especially the identification evidence of an eye witness, when one of the defence team, Sydney Carton, points out his close resemblance to Darnay and the witness accepts that she may well be mistaken.
It turns out that Darnay is in fact, the nephew and heir of the reprehensible Marquis St Evrémonde. Seeing his contempt for the poor, one can well understand the peasants’ thirst for revenge on the aristocracy. Darnay finds the Marquis’ behaviour reprehensible and makes it clear he will renounce any title that comes his way.
Meanwhile, French doctor, Dr Manette, has been released from the Bastille after 18 years – though it is not immediately apparent why he was incarcerated there. He is now in London, with his daughter Lucie and her governess. Darnay professes his love for Lucie and seeks to marry her. Carton, who is something of a degenerate, also loves her but accepts that his drunken lifestyle debars him from courting her further.
Darnay, now technically the Marquis, returns to France to help one of his uncle’s servants who has been wrongfully imprisoned by revolutionaries. However, he is himself accused of being a member of the aristocracy and faces trial for his life once more – but this time, the evidence against him is altogether more damning and the trial more chilling.
The feel of the two cities at the time is captured by Mike Britton’s efficient monochrome set that quickly slides to move locations and has sections that open and close to show other action. The minimum of furniture is used so that changes are slick. Indeed, they are extremely choreographed to some of the stirring original music by Rachel Portman – music which helps to fix the action in our minds. James Dacre’s stylised direction ensures we are always aware of the gravity of the situations in which the characters find themselves as they declaim their lines rather than simply delivering them. Every line, it seems, has layers of meaning that are revealed in their delivery. The whole thing screams Epic.
At the centre are the twin performances of Jacob Ifan as Darnay and Joseph Timms as Carton. Ifan demonstrates Darnay’s moral strength well – we do believe his repugnance at the antics of his uncle, the Marquis – indeed we share it as Christopher Hunter makes him so very unpleasant. Timms’ Carton is complex – an apparent wastrel, he seems to descend into drunkenness as he understands Lucie can never be his. But he has a moral compass too. Timms brings out these potentially opposing traits well. Patrick Romer and Shanaya Rafat as Dr Manette and his daughter Lucie, provide good support. Manette’s anguish as ancient history is dragged up and seems likely to condemn Darnay is indeed touching.
The plot is complex but at its heart is a simple tale of love and loyalty. One cannot help but be swept up by the events in revolutionary France and understand the thirst for vengeance while simultaneously feeling disquiet at the immediate aftermath, the citizens’ overwhelming desire for vengeance. But ultimately, one is uplifted at the final turn of events.
Runs until 22 October 2016 | Image:Robert Day