A Tale of Two Cities
Director Ben Duke, devised by Ben Duke and the Company
As always, Ben Duke brings his talents and knowledge distilled and honed from an English Literature degree, studies at the Guildford School of Acting, and the London Contemporary Dance School to a multimedia dance theatre production. Not only that but also his penchant for ironic deconstruction of text, as was evident in previous shows Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) and Juliet & Romeo. And so it is with his 90-minute straight through wry take on Dickens’s famous novel.
What is true and what is left out in the telling, this is what Lucie wants to know from her parents Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay (all in modern casual dress), who escaped from Paris during the French Revolution. So, a frustrated young Lucie tries to question her parents and capture their answers and evasions on film (in colour, and in black and white). To fill the yawning gaps, the missing jigsaw pieces, fix the truth on celluloid. Fat chance. And what about false memory? The camera is turned on us for the crowd scenes.
If you’ve read the book a hundred years ago like me, and maybe seen a film or TV version, you’ll remember enough snippets to patch together Duke’s piecemeal work—a version. Everything is a version. History is a version. The truth is hard to ascertain or access, but Lucie is on a mission. Her mother is evasive, her father too, and who is his lookalike Sydney Carton? What is her father hiding? All families have secrets.
Names leap out—the Marquis St. Evrémonde, Alexandre Manette, and that Defarge woman bent on killing Lucie and her husband Darnay (he changed his name), heir to the evil St. Evrémonde, for his uncle’s sins.
But don’t worry if you don’t know the book. The fun is in the build-up. And the reconstruction using camera, soundscape, and music that tells its own tale, not always in synchronicity with what we, or rather Lucie, are being told. The music, featuring Bellini, Bach, Vivaldi, Purcell alongside Nancy Sinatra, a jazzy number and a lament sung by young Lucie, is another layer of irony. The audience is amused.
Amber Vandenhoeck’s set is a war-damaged house, its ceiling a projection screen. Movement is seen through gaps in the house into its interior and projected simultaneously (though I suspect we are being played here) on the screen. Lip synch is a bit wonky, but that accentuates the questionability of what is being told. Talk about the unreliable narrator, what about the unreliable reader and viewer… Lucy with clipboard appeals directly to us.
The essential and familiar are retained in this gently eviscerated tale. The last lines of the book (“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever know”) do come at the end, but the opening ones come about halfway in. And they speak, appositely, to all time. It is worth reminding you of them today—you make the connections in light of the martial news coming out of Russia and Ukraine. Who’d have thought...
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Spoken by Defarge.
Duke has done it again—an entertaining, intelligent production, a cross between Barthes, Godard and Katie Mitchell this time. Though the horse carriage scene—two benches and bodies bouncing—is a bit panto. But the fire, the house set aflame by Defarge is an emotional moment. So a collage of effects that's affective.
One asset of the filming (projection designer Will Duke) is that film can be used to fuse figures, as when Darnay morphs into Sydney Carton. Longer movement sections (very improvised, one timed exactly by a digital clock) are danced in real time in front of the house. Temitope Ajose-Cutting (Defarge) is a fascinating mover, incorporating some popping into her conflicted personality. The others, Valentina Formenti, Nina-Morgane Madelaine, Hannes Langolf and John Kendall, are more in the dance theatre mode, eclectic, awkward, original.
The show is dedicated to sound designer Hjorvar Rognvaldsson, who “died suddenly and unexpectedly” just before the première. His sound effects are the show’s atmospheric underpinning, the essential binding in Duke’s elliptical, digressive, patchwork creation.
Reviewer: Vera Liber