“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen were slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.”
The beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is among a handful of texts which are so recognizable they sound, even in their original forms, as dangerously close to being a parody of both a single text and an age. Couple this with the fact that Pride and Prejudice has been made into a real parody – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith – and it can seem hard to take the original seriously any more. Watching Louisa Musgrove fall off the Cobb and Mr. Darcy arise in his wet shirt have become girly guilty pleasures, and advertising for Keira Knightly’s Pride and Prejudice reflected this, appearing to aim the movie at Bridget Jones fans sucking on Galaxy bars.
The works of Charles Dickens, meanwhile, have undergone a similar fate. ‘Dickensian’ as an adjective is as frequently used to describe the weather and public loos as it is the actual works of Dickens, and his books has also been parodied and turned into comedy. The most famous of these, The Muppet Christmas Carol, is so brilliant and so well loved, that it must be credited with doing the Dickens legacy nothing but a great service.
A more recent and more stretched out parody has been Mark Evans’s Bleak Expectations, a BBC Radio 4 serial that also spawned a book of the same name in 2012. Bleak Expectations is itself a slightly embarrassing pleasure, one that should cause eye-rolling but somehow just induces hyena-style laughter. The book, in which the hero Pip Bin is sent to St. Bastards boarding school and later meets London’s most eligible beauty, Miss Flora Dies-Early, is pretty chucklesome too. The only problem with reading it, is that it then makes approaching Dickens with a straight face all the harder.
With myriad adaptations already made, and parodies gently mocking from the sidelines, the decision of a director and cast of how to approach a Dickens story is rather a hard one, and this is also true for the audience. In short, to enjoy Dickens, you need to be in the mood for Dickens. This partly involves forgetting that there is anything inherently funny, ridiculous or idiotic about Dickens and also remembering that anything and everything that could be funny about Dickens has already been said, so there is little point in highlighting it again, especially if you have, out of free will, chosen to sit in a theatre or cinema and watch an adaptation.
Dickens, if one is in the mood for it, can be good fun – something I also found out about The Great British Bakeoff when I placed an embargo on my own bitchiness last Tuesday. For the most part, Neil Barlett’s adaptation of Great Expectations at the Bristol Old Vic was quite straightforwardly entertaining and, yes, as uncomplicatedly Dickensian as the stormy West Country weather outside. Bartlett has made a few concessions to the fact that we are all over-familiar with this tale by now – the set is all stripped back stainless steel and the flashback scenes of his childhood visits to Satis House are acted by the same adult actors, rather than by children – but neither this, nor the odd choice of microphones on stage, sufficiently distract from the original story.
However, the problem with both of these approaches – audience expecting nothing more than good old fashioned fun and directors feeling compelled to augment things with postmodern flourishes – is that it doesn’t quite do Dickens justice. For although characters like Scrooge have endured as clichés, not all of Dickens’s characters, even the most well-known, are as 2D as people often think. Indeed, where this production fell down was in portraying Miss Havisham as an uncomplicated villain – a bitter spinster, stalking and shrieking across the stage. The subtlety of what has made other renditions of the character great – in particular the recent filmic version played by Helena Bonham Carter – was entirely lost. Miss Havisham works much better when portrayed as a sad character rather than a bad one – or rather, a sad character made sad by bad things being done to them. Bonham Carter’s Havisham is sufficiently charming towards Pip at times that it is easy to see why the young man would believe she was his benefactor. Adjoa Andoh’s Havisham, meanwhile, seems far more likely to send Pip a dead pigeon than a cheque. The absence of the sympathy Miss Havisham can inspire left a hollowness in this production, as though her fleeing fiancé had taken half her character with him in his flight.