Creating an Epic | An In-Depth Look at the Making of Nicholas Nickleby13 Jun 2019
We sent writer, actor and director Cormac Richards to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to catch a glimpse of rehearsals and witness how the next generation of theatre makers are putting this epic onto our stage.
All photography by Mark Dawson
INTRODUCING NICHOLAS NICKLEBY
A story of greed and power; of a broken, but loving family; a world in which good and evil conflict in a thrilling adventure – no, not ‘Game of Thrones’ – this is the very basic outline of Charles Dickens’ 1830’s novel ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’.
In 1980 the Royal Shakespeare Company brought to the stage one of the most extraordinary and challenging pieces of theatre ever – an 8 ½ hour distillation of the novel, played over two parts on alternate nights – or an all-dayer, with a matinee of Part One and evening performance of Part Two. Largely sniffed at by the critics, it was adored by the public who fought to get hold of tickets.
Like many of Dickens’ novels, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is an intricate weave of plots and subplots played out on a broad canvas populated by some of the most remarkable characters in literature. Bringing these to the stage in such a vast production was only ever going to be a challenge and one which the RSC achieved, possibly beyond their own expectations.
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY AND I
In 1990, ten years after its first performance, I was invited to a meeting about a prospective production of the epic. Following auditions, I found myself in the title role – the biggest of my life – and so began a relationship with the play that continues some 29 years later.
Almost as soon as I finished playing Nicholas I was asked to direct the play at the Epsom Playhouse in 1991. On the morning of the first performance of Part One, one of the cast called me to say he had to visit his very sick Father many miles away – of course he had to go – I had six hours to learn his 5 parts!
In 1995, once again, I was asked to direct the play, this time at The Mitre Theatre in Croydon – I ended up in that one too.
To be involved in this play once is unusual – three times in six years is pretty rare I guess. It is a monster piece of theatre and not to be tackled with anything other than commitment, gusto and enthusiasm. It is not trotted out by companies around every corner. It isn’t quite a sacred cow, but a deep breath must be taken as part of the decision to proceed!
To my knowledge, the last major professional production in the UK was to be seen at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2006 which transferred briefly to the West End.
A NEW PRODUCTION
So, now in 2019, a new production is about to be unveiled. For the graduating students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (BOVTS), this will be their final chance to showcase their talents before they begin their careers proper.
Such is my love for the play that I had the privilege of watching the students rehearse and the chance to talk with some of them and the directors about the challenges and pleasures lying ahead.
Olivia Colman, Sir Daniel Day Lewis, Annette Crosbie, Jeremy Irons, Miranda Richardson and Sir Patrick Stewart are just a few of the glittering acting alumni of the School; add to them theatre director Greg Doran and brilliant stage designer Bob Crowley and you get a feel for the quality of the graduates. BOVTS encompasses the whole staging process; costumes, scenic art, stage management, design and drama writing are all covered there. This production will call on skills across students from many different disciplines.
Jenny Stephens, the Artistic Director of BOVTS, freely admits she has been harbouring a desire to bring ‘Nick Nick’ (as it is commonly referred to) to the stage since witnessing the revolutionary original staging. “It is event-theatre and some of the best story-telling that can be offered on the stage. It also provides the graduates with a collective piece of theatre like no other – a vast community has been created of approaching 100 people who are intimately involved in the project.”
So, it was chosen as the end of year production for the graduating students – who usually present two separate pieces to perform at this time of year, but in 2019 – it is this one, all-encompassing, mammoth experience.
PREPARING THE GROUND
‘Nick Nick’ is not the kind of play you just throw together in a few weeks. For directors, Jenny Stephens and Geoffrey Brumlik (Senior Acting Tutor at BOVTS), there has been a very lengthy period of preparation before a single rehearsal takes place. The students will be working from a slightly edited version of the original which was used in the Chichester production – though it will still be a substantial chunk of theatre. My appearance at the rehearsals comes a short way into that process, but it is self-evident that so much hard work has already been undertaken.
Rehearsals take place simultaneously under each director in different rooms, each of which is littered with evidence of the progress that has been made. Dominating a wall of one of the rooms – the Spielman – are a set of pictures of the costume designs alongside those showing the work of the set designer. On the opposite wall is a complex and detailed spreadsheet listing the scenes of the play (there are something over 80), the actors and the roles they are playing – with a colour coding system you can see who is in what scene and when – it is mind-boggling in its detail. No computer programme has been written to make this easier to achieve.
Props and furniture have been gathered and sit at the edge of the room waiting to be employed from a chaise longue to a deck of cards, chairs, tables, lamps and candlesticks. All will take their place backstage and on and off stage as the production goes into motion.
Overseeing the rehearsals are the Deputy Stage Managers (one for each Part) armed with lever-arch files about 4 inches thick – the script – annotated, flagged with fluorescent stickers and weighing a ton – their bible – the lifeline of the production which will become more and more detailed as rehearsals continue.
Closer inspection of the costume designs reveals a designer with skill and imagination. This is the work of MA student Alana Ashley. There is no getting away from Dickens being an early Victorian and although current theatrical trends see period pieces set in every era imaginable, these designs are firmly rooted in Victoriana, but with a twist. “There is a nod to Tim Burton in the vision” says Jenny Stephens, “with a hint of grunge.” The appetite is whetted suitably.
Nicholas’s adventures take him around England; from London to Yorkshire to Portsmouth and in identifying the part of the country and the nature of the characters our hero meets there, different colour palates have been used in the costumes. Browns for Yorkshire; blacks and greys for London and more vibrant colours to complement the theatrical folk Nicholas joins up with on the South Coast.
In the set the emphasis is on wood, a multi-level construction designed by MA student Oscar Selfridge. It will be built in the School’s own workshops before transportation to the Bristol Old Vic theatre where, appears to me, it will entirely suit. In fact, if there was ever a theatre which was built to house this play, then the 1766-built, longest continually running theatre in the English-speaking world, is the place.
FINDING THE CHARACTERS
Charles Dickens was never short of characters in his stories. He created vast populations of the meek, the mild, the wicked, the eccentric and the lovable. ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is no different and in this adaptation there are well over 100. As part of the presentation of the play the actors also narrate passages of the story in addition to their own roles. Some actors will play a single part – Nicholas for instance; his wicked Uncle, Ralph; his friend, Smike. Other actors will take multiple roles – some as many as seven.
The logistical task of casting is difficult enough normally, but with a company of just 26 performers, working out who can do what and when is a greater hurdle to clamber over. In one of the productions I was in, some slight recasting was required early in the proceedings when one actor realised that two characters he was playing were meant to be having a conversation with each other.
Jenny and Geoffrey have spent many hours pouring over the script just to assess the combinations of characters that work for their production. It is no mean feat.
For the actors it is a chance to show great versatility – so, for one actress, her challenge will involve playing a theatrical grande dame, a young orphan boy, an aristocratic lady, a gambler and a waiter in a coffeehouse – what other play gives this breadth of character to explore?
As the rehearsals continue before me, two of the actors are working on their Welsh accents to portray to wonderful Ned and Charles Cheeryble; twins who play a vital part in the concluding episodes of the drama.
On the walls of the rehearsal room you will see long sheets of paper pinned up. Outlines of characters drawn on them – possible drawn around the actor playing the part – and words and feelings associated with that character written within the outline. One example of this is Smike – where the words used include, ‘malnourished’, ‘lame’, anxious’, ‘endearing’, vulnerable’. All part of creating the rich characters and helping the actor make them as vital as possible.
I have the pleasure of meeting Kel Matsena who will be playing Nicholas – what was my high point, he asks, when I took the role – to me it was the emotional climax of the piece when one of the beloved characters dies. And the challenges playing the part? Ensure the audience likes you is my response. Nicholas is a hero, not a goodie-goodie. It is a brief chat, but rather poignant. I wish him well in his portrayal.
Throughout the rehearsal process the characters, however briefly they might appear in the play, will be built and enhanced and developed. The actors will know them and, hopefully, love playing them in all their glory.
I ask the directors what knowledge the performers have of the play. “None will have seen it on stage, and we have deterred them from watching the Channel 4 film of the original production.” says Geoffrey. “Some of the students have read the book, which fills in more detail and we have suggested finding where Dickens first introduces characters and reading those sections, this is where he gives the best descriptions.” Adds Jenny. “There are no stereotypes in Dickens, but there are archetypes, but all are individuals.”
“We hope that the performers will be able to find a sense of Dickens’ voice and the achievement of this will bring its own satisfaction.” adds Geoffrey.
The process of finding the characters will continue even in performance.
CHALLENGES, BENEFITS & PITFALLS
“The challenge is the joy of bringing the play to the stage of a wonderful theatre” explains Jenny, who is fully aware of the task being undertaken, “but also of the potential to engage audiences with one of the most immersive experiences the stage can offer.”
From a directing point of view a real difficulty is piecing the individual scenes together to create a fluent piece of storytelling. The play, like the book, is episodic; scenes are not rehearsed in sequence and after the initial blocking may not be looked at again for a few weeks. Having a good view of the arc of the play and dovetailing scenes carefully to ensure the complex story is easily followed by audiences, underpins the objectives of the directors.
The original production included music and a few songs composed by Stephen Oliver. The music seems so inextricably linked with the play that it will be performed live with this production – with some newly composed underscoring to augment Oliver’s work. Another challenge, but one which adds another beautiful layer to the proceedings.
The School is so well blessed with talent in their teaching staff that expertise is on hand in many forms. Thus, as the rehearsals continue, the Fight Director for the production, Jonathan Howell, pops in for a few minutes to give guidance on a short, comic, confrontation.
With talented actors coming on to the market, auditions are always there to be attended and fitting these in with a complicated rehearsal timetable is a major headache which Jenny and Geoffrey have to deal with. While they cannot stand in the way of the students, scheduling and re-scheduling rehearsals builds an added pressure on the bubbling cauldron that is ‘Nick Nick’. For the huge team involved in the production, their participation will enhance their CV and, hopefully, offer up further opportunities for the future.
DICKENS AND THE AUDIENCE
Television, stage and film adaptations of Dickens’ works are frequently to be seen. A new interpretation or two of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is seen each year – notably a wonderfully realised one at the Bristol Old Vic in 2018. So, he remains incredibly popular and, as a narrator of things social and political in 19th Century England, common themes can be drawn between then and present day.
‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is, in many places, a bleak story – child poverty, the wide gap between rich and poor, the arrogance of the wealthy are all issues we see in both the novel and play and in modern Britain. That said, the themes of the Home, the strength of family bonds and humanity are also common to the then and now.
With box sets of thrillers and historical epics on Netflix et al, ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ is the ultimate binge-watching theatre experience. There is nothing like it and for those witnessing it for the first time it will be an experience that they will never forget.
Dickens packs as much emotion into his works as any writer has before or since and as I watched rehearsals I saw the joy of the humour he creates – laugh out loud characters and comical situations abound. In the next moment, though he can be the bringer of unbearable sadness and tragedy. Dickens isn’t afraid of shocking and surprising and this play does both.
As I talk with Jenny and Geoffrey, we turn our thoughts to the conclusion of their production and what is next for them. For the students involved, they will graduate and move into the theatre profession, but for the School, life will continue onwards.
“We are already auditioning and interviewing for the next students who will join us after the summer and our day to day tutoring and planning for the future continues.” Says Jenny.
Hopefully both will be able to reflect on a job well done.
Whilst watching the rehearsals I was more than a little envious of all those taking part in this adventure of their own. Memories came flooding back to me as I recalled the problems we had in trying to work out how to play a card game called ‘Speculation’, just as the students were. How a single line said by Kate Nickleby ‘Frank. Back.”, caused our cast confusion and laughter and how it was doing so all over again.
It will be a huge pleasure to see ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ again and be there to see how the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s creation of this epic theatre experience has developed. The Company will put its own mark on the play. The actors will re-interpret the characters and the directors will have uncovered new depths. Dickens’ genius will shine through and David Edgar’s masterly adaptation will breathe life once again. To those who are new to the play – I can only urge them to buy their tickets and indulge themselves. For not only will they see one of the great theatrical treats but also, undoubtedly, within the Company, they will see some stars of tomorrow. The opportunity may not come around again soon. Grab the chance now.