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An Intoxicating Combination

June 6, 2007

Neil Bartlett's Oliver Twist makes the Dickens classic resonate with modern audiences

The first time I saw Neil Bartlett in the flesh — and I use the term literally, as he took off his clothes at one point — was at a performance of his 1997 play The Seven Sacraments of Nicholas Poussin. It was one of the strangest and most formative experiences I've ever had at the theater, right up there with being hypnotized during The Lamentations of Jeremiah at the Russian director Anatoly Vasilyev's cloistered auditorium in Moscow and getting to sit on actor Paul Scofield's knee in the middle of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the U.K.'s National Theatre in the early 1980s.

The British director/performer/playwright/novelist/translator performed Seven Sacraments in an old, wood-paneled lecture theater at a hospital in London's East End. Dressed in a physician's white coat, Bartlett proceeded to ruminate on the uncomfortable relationship between modern existence — particularly that of a gay man living in the late 20th century — and the sacred rituals depicted in Poussin's famous paintings, such as baptism and marriage.

The performance was austere and unembellished. The lecture theater benches were very hard. But Bartlett's gaunt, ascetic presence, his gentle yet passionate delivery, and the deeply meditative quality of the piece have stayed with me ever since. Seven Sacraments is one of only a handful of productions I've seen where I remember everything about the experience, from getting off the tube at Whitechapel station on a sunny July afternoon, to walking the crumbling corridors of the Royal London Hospital, to sitting high up in the lecture hall as Poussin's images unfurled on a screen before my eyes.

Seven Sacraments was Bartlett at his most cerebral and controlled. The auteur's Oliver Twist, by comparison, couldn't be more different. Bartlett's 2004 stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' beloved 1838 novel about an orphan boy's journey from the horrors of the workhouse, through the depths of London's underworld, and finally to the warm embrace of a loving family, is as gaudy and menacing as a carousel in a disused fairground. If Seven Sacraments takes its inspiration from the 18th-century French painter Poussin, Oliver Twist is reminiscent of one of Francis Bacon's monstrous, stained canvases. Yet even though the two productions exist at opposite ends of Bartlett's broad aesthetic spectrum, they're equally mesmerizing.

Dickens originally published Oliver Twist as a series of monthly magazine articles in the journal Bentley's Miscellany. Like the text upon which it is based, Bartlett's production is a page-turner. Every scene leaves us dangling expectantly for the next, thanks, in part, to Bartlett's manipulation of time. The story generally careens along, devouring Dickens' words at the same dreamlike pace that the mercurial Carson Elrod's Artful Dodger leads Michael Wartella's waifish Oliver through the streets of London. Every now and again, though, the action abruptly switches gear. Sometimes, the actors swarm together to create melodramatic visual tableaux (a scene at the magistrate's court, Nancy's murder, the orphanage thrown into a state of shock when Oliver asks for more, etc.) Like the etchings that originally accompanied the installments of Dickens' serialized novel, these larger-than-life "human paintings" have the effect of freezing time. The same can be said of the moments when the actors collectively chant lines of Dickens' text like a congregation of Victorian wind-up toys singing a church hymn. Eternity is locked in the space of a few seconds before the whirlwind narrative takes off again. At other moments, scenes begin and end in mid-sentence, a zany theatrical conceit which brilliantly mimics the physical sensation of turning the pages of a novel.

The fusion of the theatrical and the literary is particularly powerful in Elrod's portrayal of the Dodger, who often doubles up as the show's narrator. When Elrod describes Oliver's escape from the dastardly Sowerberry family and his exhausting 70-mile walk to London, the actor transforms himself from third-person storyteller into the character of the Dodger so slickly and bombastically that the words themselves seem to be wearing scuffed boots and pick-pocketing the viewer. Elrod changes his clothes from the narrator's plain garb to the Dodger's dandylike costume. His voice adopts a snarling cockney accent. His body develops an artful lope. Without being constantly reminded of the fact that we're watching a staged adaptation of a novel (a red hardback volume makes frequent appearances on stage to underline the fact), one would be forgiven for thinking of Oliver Twist as an original work for the stage by Bartlett, rather than one of the more well-known Dickensian tomes.

Steeped in the lexicon of old English theatrical forms such as melodrama (we're treated to both a hanging and a murder, both delivered with cartoonish aplomb) and pantomime (down to the cross-dressing and repetition of stock phrases like "oh yes she did!") this dirty finger-nailed firecracker of a production creates something both dramatically vivid and politically engaging out of its source material. From the smudged contours of the claustrophobic funhouse set, with its stained, yellowing walls covered with black boot prints and multiple trapdoors, to the scratchy, live musical accompaniment provided by a trio of wandering troubadours playing out-of-tune folk music instruments (hurdy gurdy, fiddle, and serpent), Bartlett's production coats Dickens' social critique about child poverty and the hypocrisy of the ruling classes with an extra thick layer of soot.

Like a trip to San Francisco's Musée Mecanique, the play transports us to another time and place of magical contraptions and sideshow freaks. The ensemble tells us at the start of the show: "To be sure, it is a work of fiction; an impossibility, an anomaly, an apparent contradiction." But because this is Bartlett's rather than Lionel Bart's saccharine version of the story (the 1960 musical Oliver!), we are not fooled for one second. Just as many of the hems at the bottom of the actors' costumes are coated with an inch of mud, so we understand that the problems Dickens exposed in his novel are not remotely made up or a feature of our distant pasts.

It is this mixing of a richly strange theatrical imagination and an ability to make Dickens, Poussin, or whatever the source material might be resonate with the preoccupations of our own time that defines Bartlett's greatness. The marriage of theatricality and a social conscience is a hallmark of Dickens' work, too, so it's no wonder that the combination of these two artists' talents should be so intoxicating. Oliver Twist marks the second Bartlett-Dickens collaboration to date (the first was an ingenious production of A Christmas Carol in 2003.) I hope we haven't seen the last of the partnership. Please, sir, I want some more.



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