Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
February 17, 2022
Squashing Charles Dickens 300-plus page novel, A Tale of Two Cities, into 90 minutes of dance theatre “seemed like a good idea at the time,” says Ben Duke, artistic director of Lost Dog. Although I have read several synopses (all confusing), I will confess to never having picked up the book. I don’t recall watching a television series either. While the compressing of the lengthy, complex story does actually help make some sense of things, I did leave Warwick Arts Centre still baffled about some aspects.
It will come as no surprise that Duke comes at Dickens from an unusual perspective. Bending time, we join Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay and their daughter, also Lucie Manette some time after the events Dickens related. Keen to get to be bottom of what really happened, the young Lucie decides to make a documentary.
In doing so, she opens the family’s Pandora’s Box. She makes unexpected discoveries as the dark side of her parents’ histories becomes revealed; things they wish had remained hidden. Frustrations burst forth. “What are you hiding? Why would you lie?” she asks. When answers start to emerge, tensions that had been held in check for years start to appear.
Lucie’s documentary may have had good intent, but as things come out into the open, the family’s world and relationships change. Indeed, in many ways, the show is not so much a historical tale as a depiction of the effects events past and present have on its main protagonists, Lucie included. Her project does give her answers, or some of them at least. She may be partly wiser, but is she really in a better place? Maybe things would have been best left buried.
And not everything does become clear, in particular the precise role Sydney Carton played in everything. He is the one person Lucie cannot interrogate directly, of course, having been beheaded.
Duke constantly switches between spoken word and dance. There are some excellent slow-motion dances, while a more dramatic moment comes with a John Kendall solo in which he jerks violently, depicting dancing from a noose as a digital clock counts down. Best, though, is a poignant duet for him and Hannes Langolf that illustrates Darnay and Carton’s swapping of places in the Bastille, and that mixes easily graceful, gentle, falling supports and mutual care with violent pulls and pushes.
The cast are uniformly excellent. As the daughter Lucie, Nina-Morgane Madelaine is initially full of childlike enthusiasm. Her monologues to the audience, explaining and recapping what she has discovered are done lightly and with gentle humour, and do help a little with understanding. Other amusing moments include her encouraging her parents to “bounce” in a recreation of a carriage ride, and a super one-liner. When Temitope Ajose-Cutting quotes the novel’s famous opening lines (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”), Lucie responds immediately, “You should write that down.”
As Lucie’s tight-lipped mother, Valentina Formenti appears very world worn, the burden of her history weighing heavily on her shoulders.
Two cameras on stage help take the audience into the heart of the action, and allow them to view what would be unseen scenarios inside the house that forms most of Amber Vandenhoeck’s superb set (and that doubles as Darnay’s Bastille cell). It also enables Duke to recreate the burning of a hunting lodge, and that Bastille place swap. The pictures projected onto the inside of the roof are most effective, but you do need to sat the centre or right side of the auditorium to appreciate them at their best. Sat left, the television screen somewhat unfortunately dominates rather. It didn’t help that, on this occasion too, the picture and sound was about half a second out of sync. It sounds not much but was extremely disconcerting.
Duke’s musical choices are eclectic yet always pick up the atmosphere and mood of the moment. Bellini, Bach, Vivaldi and Purcell sit comfortably alongside Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby shot me down)’, although the two most evocative are undoubtedly ‘Desires Are Already Memories’ by A Winged Victory for the Sullen (featuring Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie), and the hauntingly beautiful Irish traveller’s lament, ‘What Will We Do When We Have No Money’, sung live by Madelaine. While its deep, rich harmonies suggest sadness at what the young Lucie has uncovered, it’s also delivered with a strength and boldness that suggests her spirit and audacity has not been completely extinguished. It’s a moment of poignancy to close the show that is deeply moving.
There are moments in A Tale of Two Cities that are quite brilliant. There are moments that are funny, tender, dramatic. And the hour-and-a-half does zip by. But it’s a show that I suspect will delight and frustrate in equal measure. If you know the book, don’t be put off. But if you’ve never read it, equally don’t expect the show to illuminate all.
Lost Dog’s A Tale of Two Cities continues on tour, including to The Place, London; The Lowry, Salford; MAST Mayflower Studios, Southampton; and the Corn Exchange Newbury.