A stage production of Charles Dickens’ classic novel from the Age of Reason, Hugh Hodgart directs A Tale of Two Cities at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.
The 150-year-old story centres on a love triangle between the (underdeveloped) gentlewoman Lucie Manette (Kate Betcher) and her two would-be lovers: Charles Darnay (Rory O’Keeffe)- a mysterious Frenchman living under an assumed English identity- and the lawyer who saves him from the gallows (twice). Spread across three acts and two-and-a-half hours, the work of historical fiction bounces back and forth across the channel between the epicenters of Europe in 1785- London and Paris, two great cities that have enchanted imaginations for millennia. Paris of the day, where all the action happens, is gripped by revolutionary fervor, rotted by gross inequality and extreme poverty.
Will McNeil stole the show with his natural and relaxed portrayal of the lawyer Sydney Carton. Reminiscent of the self-destructive, alcoholic barrister Cleaver Greene (played by Richard Roxburgh in Rake), he is seemingly an incorrigible cad and an insolent degenerate, the furthest thing from an English gentleman. Hopelessly in love with Lucie Manette, he proves his quality in the end and experiences redemption with the ultimate act of sacrifice. The play isn’t able to honour the nobility of his actions in the same way Dickens is able to, but the affair still manages to gently move the audience.
Performing in a more minor role than she held in WAAPA’s previous production Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Sarah Greenwood’s acting still draws the eye as the Solicitor-General at Darnay’s trial for espionage. Also of note is Emma O’Sullivan’s convincing comic relief as Lucie’s fussy and overprotective chaperone Miss Pross.
The cool, urban set and costuming from Chris Kydd Brain is a million miles away from the Victorian era. Advertisement posters pasted to walls lord over wheelie bins, bags of trash liberally strewn about the stage and piled in corners are towered over by a pyramid of empty milk crates, and period costume is replaced with suits, jeans and Converse.
A rather dull affair, this production’s failure to excite lies in its adaptation, not in the performance of WAAPA’s third year acting students. The story doesn’t sufficiently convey the emotion of the source text – including the fear and insanity that characterised the Reign of Terror. The narrative of the central characters isn’t linked strongly to the milieu or the political upheaval transpiring (even with its attempts to convey the vengeful head hunting of aristocrats). I struggle to imagine even a more experienced cast and larger budget somehow investing such an interpretation with more presence.
The attempt to modernise, abridge and translate such a rich, classic text to the stage misses the mark, and seems an odd choice considering the wealth of material available for programming.
Words by Samuel J. Cox
A Tale of Two Cities runs at WAAPA’s Geoff Gibbs Theatre until 25 August. Tickets available here.