REVIEW: A Tale of Two Cities

First a quick look back - a long way back. As a girl I was taken to see The Only Way, a play based on A Tale of Two Cities with Martin Harvey as Sydney Carton. Martin Harvey was a matinee idol of the 20s/30s - though even when I saw him he was rather more evening than matinee, and when he came to say that "it was a far far better thing... the words sounded tired as if he'd said them so many times that he'd worn them out. Indeed there was I remember a kind of dust on the whole evening.

Recalling this made it clear to me how powerfully Adam Sutcliffe's and John Dansey's splendid production differed in every way - no dust here. From the start on the Dover road we are away into the perilous country of the emerging storm in France, whipped along by the unforgotten phrases "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" "Recalled to Life!" "One hundred and Five, North tower", "This from Jacques!" [on the stabbing of St Evremonde] - till we reach "It is a far far better thing....." We are engulfed in a story of passion, sudden death and supreme sacrifice - no holds barred, nothing held back.

This wa surely the most ambitious undertaking by the Players so far, and the movement of crowds, the grouping of players, the weaving of sound and colour all combined to achieve their remarkable success. Such an achievement demands the top of time, talent and energy from all concerned; in particular the supremely effective costumes by Alison Berryman, from Lucie's elegance to Jerry Cruncher's raggedness, to the delicate aristocracy of St Evremonde. And the ominously skilful lighting which intensified the high points of drama and led us through the complex maze of the story.

The players themselves were clearly playing to the top of their bent. Matthew Stevens cunningly divided himself into the Marquis St Evremonde and Jerry Cruncher - the first a finely disdainful aristocrat, and in Jerry a quintessential Dickensian, straight from the stable. Indeed the master's hand was evident in the whole cast. Stephen Tucker was almost unrecognisable as Mr Snottering - it was reassuring to see him more himself in small parts later, even if the last was on his way to the guillotine. Carton? Oh yes, Alex Goldfinch gave a fine picture of a ne'er-do-well who does so well in the end - his final speech was strong and moving. As Miss Pross Nina Trebilcock was wonderfully devoted and disapproving, and in the end tigerish for truth in her confrontation with Madame Defarge. And Madame Defarge herself was another revelation. I had never thought of her as young, more as a wizened tricoteuse, but Ellie Ball came over strongly with [in every sense] an edge of steel.

In the midst of all this John Willmer's Jarvis Lorry struck a fine note of upright sobriety, and was moving in his final recognition of what Carton was about to do. Another point of calm in the midst of turmoil played with dignity was Simon Malpas's Dr Manette. Natasha Lamper's Lucie was charming and made it entirely plausible that both the two leading men should be in love with her. And David Hunter played that most difficult of parts, the man to whom good is done, with conviction.

The whole of this large-scale production [skilfully adapted by Adam Sutcliffe ] is carried through with power and imagination. A flowing French flag and a cloud of smoke signifies the onset of the storm, and we are at the heart of that city with the red-capped republicans who - as the Narrator so accurately says - are headlong, mad and dangerous; the drums beat and we hear the sinister swish of the guillotine. Carton goes courageously to his death and - with a bloom of light at the windows - we are held in a moment's calm. In which to hear the echoes of a powerful and moving drama which stays in the mind - the story of two cities and the reign of terror. Congratulations to a body of dedicated people who, on the stage and behind it, produced the very best of times.

Diana Raymond
December 2006



Resurrection, Renewal and Redemption in A TALE OF TWO CITIES

"Does your childhood seem far off?" asks Sydney Carton of the "hard upon four-score" Mr Jarvis Lorry. "No. For as I draw closer to the end I travel in a circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. I remember my mother - so young and pretty - and I so old!".

Dickens was not an overtly Christian writer - and yet A TALE OF TWO CITIES is infused with themes of rebirth, redemption, the ability of love to triumph over hatred, and the value of self-sacrifice for the good and happiness of others.

Dr Manette - "buried alive" in the Bastille for 18 years, is "recalled to life" and is the first character whose 'resurrection' illustrate these themes.

Sydney Carton, the canny advocate possessed of a sharp legal mind, has given up on the world, become a drunkard and a wastrel, and spends his time in taverns. And yet in the ultimate crisis he sees that his life can have a purpose and a value after all. Once he has made up his mind, he is unwavering in his determination to do what he knows is best for those he loves and holds dear.
Miss Pross, devoted companion to Miss Lucie Manette and someone "who had never struck a blow in her life", finds the strength and the courage to confront the fearsome Madame Defarge at the moment of utmost peril for Lucie. As they grapple, Pross calls out defiantly "My love is stronger than your hate!". This is something that Madame Defarge so little comprehends as to mistake for weakness. Through Miss Pross, Dickens shows us the tenacity of love.

Even Jerry Cruncher - the bank's messenger who moonlights as a graverobber (or as he prefers to put it "a Resurrectionist ... doin' a noble service to the medical profession besides makin' a bit of money for me-self") has a moment of epiphany. As the full impact of the Terror comes crashing in on their lives he makes a solemn promise to a bemused Miss Pross that "Never no more will I do it, never no more!" (Miss Pross sensibly urges him not to think it necessary to mention more particularly what "it" is). He then takes his leave of Mr Lorry, but turns back, conscious that this could be a final parting, to add: "er ... God Bless you, sir!"
"Oh! Why thank-you Jerry", replies Mr Lorry, quite taken aback, "God Bless you too!".
These words are echoed in the final words that Sydney Carton writes to Lucie Manette from his prison cell: "God bless you for your sweet compassion". And it is indeed her compassion that has acted as a beacon for him. Lucie above all others has been slow to judge his faults, she has seen past them and expressed her hope that he could yet "be worthier of" himself. Her sweet compassion is the impetus for all that follows.
On the steps of the guillotine scaffold Sydney Carton becomes a visionary. He sees what is to come - the blots he has thrown upon his name will fade away - his self-sacrifice will allow those for whom he lays down his life to lead lives that are "peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy". But he sees even further than that - he sees the "beautiful city" and the "brilliant people" of Paris "rising from this abyss", and he sees the evil of those days gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out. Dickens's themes therefore apply not just to the individual characters, but to the cities and nations - to the whole circle of life.
At the end of the play Mr Lorry's life is turning full circle - and so is Sydney Carton's - for their exchange about childhood and travelling in a circle is the moment when Carton's resolution is fixed. Soon he will commit himself irrevocably to the salvation of others, soon he will utter those immortal words "It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done, it is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known" - and soon we shall hear, from the mouth of the Narrator standing in the pulpit, the opening words of the Christian Order of Burial of the Dead: "I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live".

Adam Sutcliffe & John Dansey