Review: Bleak House@Exeter Northcott

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Atmospheric, theatrical, dirty and playful. Artaud and Brecht as a way to explore this episodic novel.

A dark and challenging night of theatre. If that’s what you like, you will be a fan of David Glass Ensemble’s production of Bleak House. What they do, they do very well.

The company of actors in white face paint with exaggerated facial features emerge around the audience, inciting gentle participation and thrusting the story right in our faces. It is expressionistic, visceral and self-aware. Scenes gel into one another, actors transform into different characters in front of our eyes, and the set of two-story scaffolding with removable wooden slabs and vertical steps literally frames the narrative. The whole stage is placed onto a layer of dirt and the costumes indicate the worn-out feel so vividly presented in Charles Dickens’ novel.

For those not familiar with the plot, Esther, who acts as a narrator of the production, is the unknown child of Lady Deadlock, whom she gave birth to before marrying her current aristocratic husband. Esther searches for her identity and the will proving her status, but she gets thwarted throughout by the many hands of destiny, including the powerful judicial system and unwanted marriage proposals. There are several sub-plots, including crooks and thieves of 1830s London, a pair of lovebirds with an ill fate and murders galore. Feel a bit lost in it all? It’s a tricky plot but the play structures it well, effectively mixing narration with dialogue.

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I was struck by several poignant scenes, such as one in a brothel where a nude man is named in passing as Charles Dickens, an in-joke for the audience. The courtroom scenes were also especially dynamic, with powerful staging which showed the significance of the law at the time. Another success was the way the cast used posture and voice-work to illustrate the sheer physical difference between the classes. Music is used through most of the show, be it as a literal representation of a piano being played or music for a dance, or a more atmospheric soundscape, formed of the haunting sounds of a crying child and howling wind. The really intriguing work with lighting, be it from above or from the back to cast a shadow, helped bring a further dimension to the performance.

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The pace didn’t drop much throughout the show. However, I felt that the extent to which characters used their vocal range, for example how and when they shouted, could have been given more careful consideration, for the most part the company of actors occupy their large roles effectively.

As evidenced by a few individuals who decided not to return after the first act, this is not everyone’s cup of tea. This isn’t a standard Dickens adaptation, but it isn’t advertised as such, either. The story is gripping, the staging is engaging and playful, and the way they use props, mime and set keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Josip Martinčić

 

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