Presented by: TNT Theatre Britain
Directed by: Paul Stebbings
Date: Monday 28th May 2018 - 14:00 to 20:00
Venue: SDJU Theatre
Event Type: Performance Arts
OLIVER TWIST was written by Dickens at the tender age of twenty five; it is an extraordinary achievement. Its major characters and scenes have passed into myth and one could argue that it is the most popular novel of all time. However, few would claim that it is the best of Dickens’ novels. BLEAK HOUSE and GREAT EXPECTATIONS are far more accomplished.
The first hundred pages of OLIVER TWIST are flawless as the child progresses from the Workhouse to the London underworld and the epic characters of the Beadle, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Fagin are introduced. When Oliver asks for more, writes one critic, history would never be the same again. But as soon as Oliver is captured at the burglary of his own half-sister’s (!) house, the book descends into a slow sentimentality which is redeemed in the last quarter when the story returns to the London underworld.
Our production follows the lead given by David Lean in his classic film version and cuts the entire Maylie family sub-plot. Research has shown that Dickens’ obsession with the angelic and frail Rose Maylie was the result of his own cousin’s serious illness.This is an interesting example of the potential danger of writing a novel in weekly instalments; the young Dickens was over-influenced by his current emotional state.
The flaws of construction are perhaps not as serious as the inherent contradiction in the central argument of the book, already mentioned in the section on Dickens’ art. If the workhouse is a murderous institution for the degradation and even destruction of the poorest and most vulnerable members of Society, then what alternative have the destitute except crime?
Oliver would die of neglect and starvation upon the highway if the Artful Dodger does not rescue him and take him to the warmth and hot sausages of Fagin’s den. But the food and comfort that revives him are the product of crime. Dickens punishes his criminals; Bill Nancy and Fagin are all dead by the end of the book and the Dodger transported for life to the penal colony in Australia. And their fates are presented as good and proper punishment.
When Oliver is beaten unconscious and dragged before the drunken and cruel Judge Fang (in our production replaced by a policeman) the entire legal system is exposed as a corrupt part of the same vicious state machinery that runs the Workhouse. Two hundred pages later the court which tries Fagin and sentences him to death is presented as a model of fairness. It is impossible to reconcile the two court scenes and the contradictions within the wider novel.
Dickens’ own solution is to demonise Fagin, the Jew becomes the almost supernatural source of evil. But although this may work aesthetically, it is morally repugnant, especially in the light of the Holocaust.
It has been said that had Shakespeare been writing today he would never have created Shylock and perhaps the same can be said of Dickens and Fagin. Any modern adaptation has to deal with the problem of the anti-Semitism in OLIVER TWIST. The David Lean film and the Lionel Bart musical both “solve“ the problem by avoiding it and Fagin is not executed.
The anti-Semitism of the novel can either be played down or exposed as part of the system of repression. It has seemed to us more challenging to expose rather than avoid the problem. It is interesting that even Dickens himself toned down the language in later editions, substituting the name Fagin for the more frequent use of “the Jew“ in the first edition. Once Fagin ceases to be a supernatural force for evil it is possible to continue the social analysis of the first hundred pages of the book into the second half of the story.
This has basically been our approach. Brownlow, for example, is made to bear the responsibility for rejecting his own daughter and causing her death and Oliver’s unhappy childhood. Once Fagin is recognized as a flawed scapegoat rather than a demon, Brownlow’s hand in his downfall becomes less than honourable.
However, the play follows the book in not romanticising crime. Crime may be the only alternative to starvation for Fagin’s gang but it is no substitute for a proper place in society. The violence and suspicion with which the criminals must live corrupts and destroys them. The book (and play) end with Oliver stating: “I am truly happy“ but the reader has the impression of tragedy.
OLIVER TWIST is a marvellous resource for those who would adapt it for the stage. It is dramatic, comic and tragic. The famous Polish director Grotowski said that a production of a classic play or novel only justifies itself if it confronts the original. We have tried to confront the contradictions in OLIVER TWIST and concentrate on the sense of injustice that lies at the book’s core. We also aim to capture the theatricality and showmanship that makes OLIVER TWIST one of the most popular stories ever told.