David Copperfield - October 2016
A WHEEL OF WORDS AND SPINNING MOTIONS
Mary Truell relishes Dickens’s language in her review of David Copperfield
Dickens loved these characters he created. Did he mean them to be, besides themselves, part of a hidden dissertation on The Power of Words?
Young David (Freddie Maltby), his favourite, whose captivating small figure imperviously stood against the vicious Murdstone (powerfully acted by Craig Norman) with his sister Jane (Theresa Armstrong) equally and convincingly crazed for power, that cowardly verbal bullying generated by jealousy. It was with his teeth that the diminutive boy responded with spirited zest, resulting in his banishment to Salem School, where the small-minded bewigged master, Creakle (meanly played by Clive Wilson in the first of several well-defined little cameos), used words to mortify the boy with a placard: ‘Take Care. He Bites.’ The schoolboys, Traddles (Philip Johnson) and his chum (Callum Weston) made us laugh with their lively banter, though in fact it was added unkindness to the small new boy. David (in the person of Freddie) unflinchingly stood his ground. We felt for him as he fell under the seductive charm of the handsome, arrogant Steerforth (Sam Billington), whose haughty confidence commanded subservience even from Creakle. Here David’s quite different use of the power of words came into its own. With the excitement of at last being someone who mattered, he regaled the boys with time-old stories of adventure, set against the lifeless dirge of an education based on Latin Grammar.
How seamlessly Child David grew to Young David (Megan Ellis). Whether as child, teenager or young man (Bruce Ellis), throughout the play these three actors firmly put across David’s intrepid courage, poised on the high moral ground.
In his novels, Dickens often introduces a beautiful girl, cruelly used, who meets a tragic end. David’s mother, Clara, warm and lovingly played by Jane Pile-Rowland. “I couldn’t live with coldness and unkindness,” is her plea to her fiendish husband, but she and her little babe must die. Next bubbly little Emily (Lucy Norman) growing to an open-hearted, happy girl (Heather Sword) whom David loves. He begs her to write to him at school to remind him of “the sky... the smell of the sea... and you.” Words of comfort.
Later in the play we are brought to tears to witness Emily, when a young woman (Lucia Ellis), defiledand disgraced by the man, Steerforth (Mark Richardson), whose initial sincerity to embrace a simple seagoing life gives lace to his spilt snobbish upbringing. A most vivid scene is that in which Mrs Steerforth, symbolically dressed in red silk, terrifyingly played by Judy Day, reviles in a language of passionate hate the ruined lower class girl for whom our sympathy never fails. The poignantly spoken words of forgiveness for this outburst, that Daniel (David Eaton) gives to his broken but ever dignified little niece, were a highlight of the play: “She cannot hurt you, child... She loves her son, and she cannot bear what she has made him.” Words that prove the power
The third tragic soul is the delightful, beautifully attired, hopelessly naïve Dora (Jess Griffin). What a wonderful piece of acting when Bruce Ellis’s David, having repeated three times how ‘dismal’ his boss’s daughter will surely be, is totally besotted at the first sight of the beautiful Dora. It was a lovely section of the play – the misunderstanding of the grocer’s bill, the reminiscing of what went on in the shrubbery! But of course poor Dora has to die, though she is in no way misused. And Dickens was a sentimentalist. The mourning of Dora’s death was perfect, both David and Agnes kneeling before a simple bunch of flowers on the lowest dais of the stage, where warm matters of the heart were played throughout the evening.
After the storm, in which Ham (Craig Norman in this contrasting role from Murdstone) selflessly swims out to rescue Steerforth, and both are drowned, there comes the monologue, beautifully spoken by Bruce, where words evoke our poetic imagination, the soul’s comfort in ‘the serenity of nature’.
In complete contrast to tragic youth are three idiosyncratic ladies of mature years: Pegotty (Anna Streather, whom we must congratulate on the amazing expertise of her needle in producing a great many of the lovely costumes) with her pink cheeks surrounding Mas’r Davy and his poor mother, her own happy family and we, the audience alike with her love and protection. Such cheering, warm-hearted acting! Betsy Trotwood (Grace Packman) the quintessence of eccentricity, whose splendid acting showed us the most loopy loveable donkey-obsessed feminist one could imagine! Betsy’s friend could never be anyone than the twilight figure of Mr Dick (David Eaton). If only we could diffuse the words of politicians on a magnificent kite (Sheila Stone knows all about that labour of love!) how sensible the world would be! Well played.
Then, of course, that faithful, valiant, matrimonial unburdener, who would NEVER desert her beloved Husband, Mrs Micawber (Liz Langley). How clever she was in emulating his flowery turn of speech, and how clever Liz was to constantly repeat her perennial promise as if each mention of it was the first.
Talk about a treatise on Words! Where will it end? Our English language would be impoverished bereft of the quotations. Hear old Barkis (Ian Herbert) who always ‘is willin’. But who is this charismatic, most endearing figure entering the stage? Self-dramatist par excellence, razor in hand one minute to end his life, welcoming poverty the next, then exotically dressed as potential Governor of Australia. Why, it is the Celebrant of English Rhetoric to whom, however dire the situation, the vernacular is anathema. With exceptional finesse in the deliverance of our extensive English vocabulary, this walking Thesaurus, an example to us all, holds the Stage. Despite a few of life’s unfortunate misadventures, his purity of heart and eternal optimism must surely triumph; something is bound ‘to turn up’. And sure enough it does. Australia embraces Mr Micawber, played by Harland Walshaw. His striking, most memorable acting has held us all in awe. We are sad he has gone so far away. What a truly great performance!
Before leaving, Mr Micawber’s hidden prowess as a sleuth bore fruit, saving many of his friends from the poorhouse. In a dramatic confrontation, he exposed the wicked deceptions practised by that wily specimen, Uriah Heep, played by Heather Redding. Another brilliant performance wherein the power of his intrusive words
subtly contest his assailant. Uriah’s mealy-mouthed ’umble phrases became tactile through his writhing snakelike hands coiling round his victims, suffocating them by his sleazy self-indulgence and shameless ambition, the quintessence of corruption. An excellent, unforgettable rendering of the part. But throughout the play this great wheel of words and spinning emotions needs a hub. It was she, the self-effacing, fair and beautiful, loved and loving Agnes Whitfield (Becky Gilfillan, so aptly cast). Her entrances always gave a sense of stability, as much to the audience as to the characters in the tale, backed by the quiet wisdom of her words, so clearly spoken. Quite right that our hero, whose integrity had never wavered, should eventually recognise that Agnes was much more to him than a ‘sister’. Change one small word and you change a lifetime. A very moving scene between Bruce and Becky brought to an end this most enjoyable and stimulating evening.
So who keeps the play in motion? All the soldiers, sailors, bottle-washers,
pawnbrokers, policemen, thieves, persons hurled relentlessly in the storm, street folk, the Micawber family, etc. How that dressing room must have buzzed with constant costume changing. Lighting (Mai Targett and Hester Walshaw) and sound (Brian Mather, oh! Raging storm! Musicians Graham Banks, John Welton, John Billington) subtly influenced our senses (not to mention a little tipple at the bar! Greg Crum), but what untold work to make this happen. (The musicians’ bottle factory instruments were a revelation!) That professional lady Caroline Hallum is a revelation. Nothing permitted on stage out of character. Jenny Moxom and her helpers could change the face of Britain, never mind Brexit! Brilliant! Julia Crockett, prompter, night after night, with script in hand, knowing that every character is in her thrall and she must never lose the place. A tiring job indeed.
Finally our Director, Sharon Wayland with Claire Lawrey and Sheila Stone to aid her must be heartily congratulated on creating such an ambitious and memorable performance which has given infinite pleasure to so many of us, actors and audience alike. Sharon not only nobly took on the task at a moment’s notice, but it was her debut in this responsible position. May she continue with what she has learned for many more productions in the future. Thank you to all and everyone.