Review: Soulpepper's Dickens adaptation in Toronto meets expectations Special

Posted Jul 17, 2013 by Jeff Cottrill
Sometimes you have to approach a new adaptation of a familiar classic with an open mind. Nothing could ever match how you see it in your head or how you've seen it staged or filmed before; letting that go is the only way to be objective.
Young Pip (Jeff Lillico)  left  encounters the mysterious convict Magwitch (Oliver Becker) in the ch...
Young Pip (Jeff Lillico), left, encounters the mysterious convict Magwitch (Oliver Becker) in the churchyard in Soulpepper's "Great Expectations", now running in Toronto.
Cylla von Tiedemann
Charles Dickens' works make a curious example. The man described his characters and settings so vividly and specifically, in such detail, that it would seem impossible to get them wrong. From Scrooge and Bill Sykes and Little Nell, to the stench of London streets and debtors' prisons, his imagery creates easy templates for playwrights and screenwriters to handle. Despite this, we still end up with our own unique mental pictures of these elements of his novels. (By “we”, I mean people who've read Dickens outside of high-school English classes, which is far from a universal trait in the iPhone age.)
So it would be easy to criticize Soulpepper's lively new stage adaptation of Great Expectations, one of the greatest novels ever written, for being incompatible with your personal images of the book. Produced by a Toronto theatre company known for fresh updates of classic dramas, it's very faithful to the original even while having to cut its five hundred pages down to two and a quarter hours. It's adapted and directed by Michael Shamata, who also adapted Soulpepper's acclaimed annual staging of A Christmas Carol. As entertaining and colourful as it is, it might work best as a handy introduction to the novel, or even to Dickens, for the uninitiated: a straight retelling of the story, without the full emotional or thematic depth.
First published in serial form from 1860 to 1861, Great Expectations centres on another one of Dickens' orphans, Pip (Jeff Lillico), his transformation from a young blacksmith's apprentice in Kent to a wealthy London gentleman and his emotional maturation throughout. He gains a mysterious fortune from an anonymous benefactor – whom he believes to be Miss Havisham (Kate Trotter), an eccentric and reclusive rich lady who has refused to look upon daylight or take off her decaying wedding dress since being jilted at the altar. Along the journey, Pip falls hard for her adopted daughter, Estella (Leah Doz), a beautiful but heartless snob who has served as Miss Havisham's instrument for revenge on the male gender. Always guilt-ridden and self-conscious, Pip remains torn between loyalty to his humble past at the country forge and his new life among the snooty elites.
But a basic summary like that can't even begin to express the richness of the story or its inimitable cast of characters, and Shamata's version (which opened at Toronto's Young Centre last night) wisely keeps many of these characters in – with some talented performers bringing them to life. Trotter's demented Miss Havisham wavers compellingly on the balance between a pathetic, vulnerable soul and a frightening hag, smacking her rotted dining table viciously with her cane and screeching as if mortally constipated with bitterness. Other standouts include Deborah Drakeford as Pip's cruel, abusive sister; C. David Johnson, who brings the right impatience and lawyerly ambiguity to Jaggers, Pip's London guardian; and Oliver Dennis as Jaggers' kindly, sympathetic clerk, Wemmick.
And while his accent's all over the place – at various moments he seems to be from London, West Country or even Manchester – John Jarvis is otherwise perfect as Pip's fawning, hypocritical uncle Pumblechook. As if lifted straight out of the novel, Jarvis creates a shameless opportunist who patronizes and scolds the child Pip (“Why is it that the young are never grateful?”), only to start sucking up and taking credit the minute Pip gets rich. It's a bit disappointing that Shamata leaves out the payoff scene in which Pip finally stands up to Pumblechook.
But Doz is dull and forgettable in her vital dual role as Estella and as Pip's childhood friend Biddy. And in his second role as Joe Gargery, Pip's blacksmith brother-in-law and childhood “best of friends”, Dennis gets the loving and proud traits right, but doesn't seem as slow or intellectually challenged as the Joe from the book (or from the David Lean film), making Pip's later snobbish rejection of him harder to understand. As the escaped convict Magwitch, Oliver Becker is physically right for the part, but his line delivery lacks depth. Meanwhile, why ever in the name of Boz that Shamata chose to have Miss Havisham's female relatives played by men in drag (instead of by, say, Doz and Drakeford) remains a mystery. It's very distracting.
Lillico is a likeable, everyman-style Pip, imbuing Dickens' most realistically changing hero with naivete, shame, vulnerability and occasional good intentions. At times, his delivery of the book's first-person narrative passages runs on the slow side, but the pace always picks up whenever Pip has a scene with Herbert (Paolo Santalucia), his London flatmate and friend.
Shamata trades the complex lighting effects and set designs of his A Christmas Carol for a minimal set here, using a group of eight or nine chairs as makeshift set pieces, including tables, tombstones and even handy places to put hats. It's all that's necessary, because Shawn Kerwin's costumes already do plenty to create the look and feel of 19th-century England, and Shamata can keep scenes moving and changing at a brisk pace just by switching the characters onstage. One dramatic highlight is Pip's first visit to London, as stovepipe-wearing actors randomly criss-crossing the stage and Lillico's awe express his sense of wonder.
Any fan of the novel might lament the absence of certain scenes cut for time: Pip's absurdly funny childhood fight with Herbert; more development of Estella's fiancé, the sulky and arrogant Bentley Drummle (Jesse Aaron Dwyre); the Trabb boy's mockery of Pip when the latter returns home (“Don't know ya!”); and on and on. But this Great Expectations isn't a mere plot reconstruction – there are still moments of Dickensian whimsy. The appearance of Wemmick's Aged Parent (Jarvis again), a near-deaf old man who can respond only to nodding, is not essential to the story, but provides needed laughs. When Wemmick zig-zags randomly around the stage to lead Pip around London, it's not only amusing, but also shows what a confusing labyrinth the big city must appear to be to the young man.
And a few of Dickens' most beautifully written passages still make the final cut in Pip's narration to the audience. “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” Lillico says upon his leaving the Kent forge, “for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” There's also his painful recognition of his own youthful dishonesty, expressing one of the book's dominant themes in a nutshell: “All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers.”
Soulpepper's Great Expectations is worth seeing. It's vibrant, alive with some good performances and often fun. It's not a substitute for the book, of course, but I hope that it encourages audience members unfamiliar with the novel to follow up the play by seeking out the original. The book's timeless themes and scope will be more likely to surpass your expectations.
Great Expectations runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until August 17.