Adapting a Charles Dickens novel to the stage is often a Herculean task, even if one isn't attempting to musicalize it. The last Dickens adaptation I was able to see in Toronto was the Chichester Festival Theatre's 2008 production of David Edgar's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which was more than six hours long, having been cut down significantly from its original nine-hour incarnation. Even then, there were gaps and nuances that could not be covered, because Dickens' novels are so full of character and incident. So to fit all of Dickens' Hard Times into a two-hour production is no mean feat; especially to do it with puppets.
Dickens and puppets seem to be a match made in heaven, and here is why: Dickens' stories are rich and full of life, but so many of his characters are archetypes, caricatures - in a good way, for thematic emphasis and stakes-raising conflict between good and evil. It's made obvious in Dickens' gleeful names; surnames like Gradgrind, McChoakumchild, Cheeryble, Skimpole, and Dedlock abound in his work, leaving no doubt as to the essence of the named character's being. Puppets and masks are fantastic ways of emphasizing and playing with particular character traits, as features can be exaggerated and frozen effectively. Theatre Passe Muraille's production, adapted and directed by Chris Earle, a collaboration between night kitchen and Puppetmongers (brother and sister David and Anne Powell, in this production joined by Anand Rajaram), features some wonderfully inventive ways of storytelling.
Dickens' novel tells the tale of the harsh life in industrial Coketown, where children are taught to learn and lead an emotionless life based solely on facts by professor Gradgrind, and a utilitarian model reigns that results in letting people starve to death as long as it isn't too high a percentage of the population. Gradgrind's daughter Louisa is ruined by the former "ideal," sacrificing love and happiness for a marriage that is essentially a business transaction, while mill worker Stephen Blackpool is ruined by the latter when the workers begin to speak of unionizing. Central to the ruining of all things is mill owner Josiah Bounderby, a boorish, self-proclaimed "self-made" man "devoid of all sentiment."
In the midst of all this misery, the puppet design is lovely, both the small puppets and the half-masks. The faces are extremely expressive in a way that is half arts-and-crafts and half Terry Gilliam, and many puppets hide small surprises. The transfer of many characters from puppet to mask and back again is handled gracefully and in a way that generally makes sense. Even the construction of the masks sometimes provide character commentary. Mr. Harthouse, a rakish character who claims to have no convictions and whose languid manner suggests little inner life, holds his face on like a monocle where other characters wear them fluidly. This suggests, appropriately, that Mr. Harthouse is a mask wearing a mask, essentially empty.
The set, which fits neatly into the tiny Backspace, is beautifully grim, with a highlight being the small models of houses and factories that sits above the middle of the playing space. Thin fabric smoke rises from the houses so that the entire model sky becomes covered with the merging trails. This set piece is effective both in visual appeal and in social commentary. Much like the Nicholas Nickleby production, the most exciting theatrical moments here occur when the atmosphere of a large-ranging novel is suggested by simple effects. In this vein, shadow puppetry is a major plus, showing all kinds of swirling backgrounds and character treats, including sudden changes of size and facial expression. It is also a fine way to capture the faceless Coketown mob. The inventiveness in staging is quite nice, with actors appearing from all quadrants, a circus tent suddenly created out of a sheet, and a scene being shown with a curtain half-drawn, so that the players are hidden from the shoulders up and the audience can only guess at the hinted-at audacious facial expressions and gluttony.
The only props that distract are stacks of books the children "study" which are obviously non-period, like an organic chemistry textbook and a book on psychology (and another on Sigmund Freud himself). Hard Times was published in 1854, and Freud wasn't even born until 1856. The stacks are a cute idea, but the modernity is jarring in a way that is never repeated.
The thematic denseness evoked by the visual landscape is the production's greatest gift. It hints at more beneath the surface of the adaptation; with the time constraints, what we can get is only a taste of the novel's scope. There is so much to be said that certain character arcs get a bit lost in the shuffle, despite the punishing number and speed of words the puppetmongers pack into the adaptation. Punishing, that is, not to the audience, but to the actors.
Though I viewed the production in only its second preview, there was clearly some more practice required. The three actors face a punishingly dense, quickly-spoken text, and slip-ups, tongue-tripping and short pauses to remember lines were myriad, particularly by the Powells; Rajaram handled himself admirably and proved amusing as blustering Mr. Bounderby, heartrending as tempest-tost worker Stephen Blackpool, and intriguing as the effete Harthouse. This kind of thing happens in live theatre and is usually not a problem, but in scenes bordering on eight characters where timing and picked up cues are of the essence, (the final scene of the first act, the climactic courtroom scene), gaps and pauses completely undermine the tension that the production is attempting to build, and the dramatic effect is lost. Sometimes tech is also an issue. If the Powells can bring the level of their words up to the fluidity of their visuals, the production would really blossom and become more than an old curiosity shop of visual delight.
Hard Times is at Theatre Passe Muraille until October 16th.