Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations was one of my favourite books in the 19th century literature class I took a few years ago. The themes of love and broken hearts, the examination of what it means to be a gentleman and the good-hearted and weepy Pip lit my imagination in a way that few books have.
When I heard that Persephone Theatre was performing Great Expectations, I had to see it. The characters and scenes in the book are incredibly vivid to me and there are few things more exciting than seeing your favourite characters come to life.
There are also few things more stressful than watching an adaptation of a book, as many movie-goers know.
Luckily, Errol Durbach’s adaptation met my great expectations. By keeping the most important characters and plotlines, I didn’t feel short changed.
However, the three characters I missed most were Compeyson, Magwitch’s enemy; Dolge Orlick, Joe’s journeyman blacksmith; and Miss Skiffins, Wemmick’s girlfriend. Along with these missing characters, the audience lost a few interesting plot lines and character developments.
Of course, Durbach could hardly include the whole novel: the play currently runs nearly three hours and although I enjoyed every minute, I would hardly want the play to run longer.
Some of my favourite characters from the book were still my favourite characters on the stage. I was relieved that the actors didn’t disappoint.
Wemmick, the eccentric second-hand man to the lawyer Jaggers, is one of my favourite characters of all time. While the play didn’t spend as much time with Wemmick at home as I would have liked, it still did a good job of illustrating the two very different sides of Wemmick: at home and at work.
Andrea Menard did a fantastic job as Mrs. Joe. She had me fearing for Pip’s health and sanity, while laughing out loud at the absurdity of someone so angry and stressed out.
Robert Moloney received a standing ovation from the packed theatre for his performance as the main character, Pip. The story revolves around Pip, as he is both the main character and the narrator. The play sticks with that format, with Moloney involved in nearly every scene and summarizing and narrating in between. Moloney carried the challenge well.
The period dress, too, was impeccable. The costumes were elaborate and beautiful, and also perfectly suited to the late 19th century.
My complaints are fairly minor and easily made up for in the strength of the acting. Simon Webb played Pip’s father-figure Joe Gargery, and although he got Joe’s character dead on, I had always imagined Joe as a younger man.
Another superficial complaint is with Henry Woolf as Jaggers. The diminutive Woolf captured Jaggers hard and proud character perfectly but I had always imagined Jaggers towering over Pip and Wemmick. Interestingly, Woolf still manages to capture the feeling of “towering” despite having to look up at his underlings.
Reading the book isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the play, either. I attended the performance with my dad who has never read Great Expectations or seen any adaptation of it before. The story was new to him and he enjoyed it at least as much as I did.
Durbach’s adaptation playing at the Remai Arts Centre right now is a world premiere but it’s certainly not the first time Great Expectations has been adapted from the book. Wikipedia reports Expectations has been adapted to the stage or screen over 250 times.
Artistic director John Wright also points out this tendency to be adapted in the program.
“Dramatic versions [of Dickens’s books] were presented very frequently during his lifetime, making him one of the most celebrated authors in nineteenth century English theatre, without his ever having actually written for the stage,” wrote Wright.
If you haven’t been to the Frank and Ellen Remai Arts Centre yet, Great Expectations is a perfect excuse. The story is accessible and entertaining, and the theatre itself is beautiful.
image: Kenneth T Williams