“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Looking ahead to Lost Dog’s new A Tale of Two Cities

David Mead talks to Lost Dog Artistic Director Ben Duke about his reimagining of Charles Dickens’ classic novel.

It has felt good being back in a studio, says Ben Duke. “Part of me hoped that maybe I would turn into a novelist or something during lockdown. At least then I could get on with my creative process without meeting other people. But I didn’t at all. I just missed this process of being in a room with people, making things. It definitely feels different, though; even more fragile than usual. We’re constantly dealing with the possibility of the rug being pulled out from under us at any moment. But what can you do? On we go. This is how things are.”

Ben Duke reading A Tale of Two Cities
Photo Sara Weal

Never one to shy away from celebrated texts, Duke’s latest work is based on Charles Dickens’ epic A Tale of Two Cities. Published in 1859, the author’s best-known work of historical fiction is set in London and Paris against background of the French Revolution. The novel, which Dickens considered the best story he ever wrote, interweaves one family’s personal dramas with the terror and chaos of the time.

Anyone familiar with Duke’s work will not be surprised to learn that the new production is not a straight retelling of the story and that he has reimagined things somewhat.

He explains, “Charles Dickens left a lot out of his novel, particularly when it comes to Lucie Manette, the central female character. I think she was underwritten; much of her psychological complexity left on the cutting room floor. Our show picks up those offcuts and sticks them back together – possibly in the wrong order – to rediscover the real story of this complex, troubled, funny, and, ultimately, 21st century woman.”

In Lost Dog’s part dance, part theatre staging, Lucie Manette and her aristocrat husband’s escape from Paris is well in the past. But their daughter, also called Lucie, wants to discover exactly what happened and the secrets her parents hide away. So, she makes a documentary, questioning them and restaging events. What she discovers comes as a surprise.

Duke says there were lots of things that drew him to the book, which first read as part of his A-Level studies as a teenager. “I remember really kind of loving it. I remember being really moved by the ending. You’ve spent so much time with the characters. You’ve followed the twists and turns of the plot. It feels like a culmination of things, and somehow it really emotionally shifted me.”

When he picked the book up again some years ago, he initially dismissed it as the basis for a piece. There is a lot of story, he admits, and as he says, on stage you don’t have endless hours to build a relationship with the characters. It was quite different to how he remembered it. “It’s much more binary. It is a book about the two cities and a kind of sense of difference, but it’s also a story about a family.” But he couldn’t ignore the challenge. “I wanted to get underneath everything; to get into the central female character, and ask what is going on for her.”

Lost Dog present A Tale of Two Cities
Photo Sarah Weal

He adds that there is also something about the idea that Dickens is responsible for part of our national psyche. “Even if we don’t know his stories, he is somehow in us as we form our sense of Englishness, I think. I was curious about looking at that, and how that plays out now.”

While a lot of people will recognise what may well be the most well-known opening line in literature (and quite possibly the closing sentence too), Duke says he is not assuming any knowledge of the story. “We’ve had to play around a lot with it anyway, dip into certain bits of it, ignore huge chunks of it. But what I underestimated was Dickens’ skill in terms of how the plots overlap and so cleverly interweave to arrive at the ending. So, it has been really difficult.”

What we have, says Duke, is basically a private domestic story that takes place amongst the political upheaval. “We’ve zoomed in on the family that’s at the centre of that story and stripped away lots of the other stuff. Hopefully that will make sense to people who have no knowledge of the book.”

The audience will pick things up as the young Lucie does, he explains. As she makes the documentary, she uncovers things that she didn’t know about her family: things that her parents have not told her, either through omitting to tell her or through bare-faced lying.

That’s something all families have, he agrees. “We think that we really know our parents because we’ve spent time with them; although actually we don’t. There are huge chunks of their lives and experiences that we don’t have access to. I do find it absolutely fascinating, and also how difficult it sometimes is to get into those conversations. The documentary provides Lucie with maybe an excuse to ask some of those questions.”

Duke says that while he hopes his A Tale of Two Cities has a sense of resolution as the secrets are brought out into the open, it’s not neat. It’s not like a whodunnit where all the ends are tied up in the final episode. “But I hope there’s a sense of you understand where they are now that these stories have come out into the open.”

Ben Duke working on A Tale of Two Cities
Photo Sara Weal

Alongside text and movement, Duke and the cast have been experimenting with cameras as a way of playing with what is private and what is public, what is real and what is not. He explains that while it looks like it’s all live feed, but some of it isn’t as characters are accessed through their conversation with the documentary camera, but also through private spaces.

“I’m interested in how cameras confuse our sense of privacy. We can talk to a camera and feel as though we are alone or just talking to one other person but in reality that sense of intimacy is a lie because what is being recorded can be seen by a lot of people. Cameras also create a distance between the bystander and the action.”

For the set, Duke has turned to Amber Vandenhoek, perhaps best known in Britain for her work on Peeping Tom’s Mother and Father. Her process is a little different in that she designs the space very early, the company almost immediately working with a mock-up of the set.

“I really like that because it immediately puts limits and challenges into the space that we working with and making sense of. As a result, I feel that the set gets integrated in a way that’s perhaps different to the other process of talking about what you want.”

Would Dickens recognise it? ” We are not trying to act out his book, but I think he would,” says Duke. “We started with quite a lot of using his dialogue, playing through his scenes. He had quite a strong sense of drama. We used that to start with, and then the more we went on, the more we moved away from his language. We’ve made it more contemporary, a bit more ordinary. And we have quoted some of the most famous lines.”

Duke says that while he doesn’t know what he wants audiences to feel or take away from the show, “I will be happy if it is a piece of theatre that stays with them, that they were thinking about a few days afterwards; that it kind of brings up things for them. I think that’s the advantage of dance. It opens up spaces where you are fee to daydream and find your own threads. I hope it’s a show that provides that space.”

Lost Dog’s A Tale of Two Cities premieres at Warwick Arts Centre from February 16-18, 2022.
It then moves on to London’s The Place (February 26-March 5), followed by a national and international tour.