Bleak House

Charles Dickens, adapted by David Glass
David Glass Ensemble
Exeter Northcott Theatre
to

David Glass’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is loaded with Gothic visceral physicality. A ghoulish, macabre group of grasping lawyers clamber across the simple, naked, two-storey set made of stripped back scaffolding. At first you are not really sure if you are in an asylum, or as Dicken’s famous satire on parts of the English civil justice system points out, you are simply in the madness that is chancery.

The entire cast seem stuck between the living and the dead: white faces, crazy unkempt hair, grey shadows under the eyes. It seems people are existing in some sort of in-between world. It is as if their life is sucked out of them as they are drawn into the corruption and procrastinations of the legal world. They can’t enjoy a world with the living as they invest their hope which disappears in the ever-decreasing spirals and counter-suits of chancery law.

The squalour and noxious existence for those barely scraping a living in 19th century London are vividly recreated here. Buckets of effluent are regularly thrown out of windows, most landing on the unfortunate Jo. People are living in tiny rooms, squashed into spaces below floorboards, with dust floating around them from the crumbling ceilings above. Bare earth and mud are scattered throughout, sticking to anyone unfortunate to fall in the streets. The London fog moves slowly across the set.

We are introduced to the main characters almost at once in one vivid multi-dimensional scene, where the cast simultaneously play out their own back-stories around different parts of the scaffold set. It is a terrific start to the Dickens classic and credit to adapter David Glass to fit the usually long story into just over two hours.

Sadly, the very physical approach from David Glass Ensemble does go overboard almost instantly which is very distracting from the main story and characters. It works well as a set-up for the audience to appreciate the madness of the court system but it then descends in to some lunatic singing cabaret introduction which goes on too long. This grotesque ensemble of lawyers and judges go on to masturbate their gavels and ejaculate and expectorate onto those below. It is indulgently repetitive and makes the wait for the main story to begin too overdue. The cast enjoying their crotches is just one more unnecessary, unpleasant and distracting delay.

Once the story gets underway, we are reminded again of the tragedies at the heart of this very human story. Most of the cast double up roles throughout the evening. Orphan Esther in search of her family, the secret life and heartbreak of Lady Deadlock before she married, the likeable but inconstant Richard’s dashed hopes, the ruin of those waiting for their estates to be realised only to find the entire value eaten up by lawyers arguing for years, in the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce for over 50 years.

Villains are scattered through the story and in this shortened version, Tulkinghorn, Guppy and Madame Crook are the scheming lawyers and heartless landlady. Glass takes some liberties with the plot but, unless you are a purist, it still works. However, much of the character development is skipped which seems an odd choice and not for the better. Most—except Jo and Esther—just seem rather mad, which means much of the nuances, tenderness and tragedy of the original are lost.

A curious production which starts with some great visceral promise but quickly goes too far. It settles down in the second half but by then much of the character complexities have been sacrificed to Glass’s ghoulish approach which means much of the warmth and love in this classic are missed.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips