Bleak House & Bookshops

I have just returned home from a long stint working away in Oxford, directing an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House for Creation Theatre.

It has been hard graft but I am so glad I got the opportunity to work with such a wonderful team on this production. It has opened to some fantastic reviews (have a Google if you fancy a read – I have put a couple up on my Director page, too).

The play was set to open for a 5 week run in the amazing bowels of Blackwells, a very old bookshop in Central Oxford, right opposite the Bodleian Library. It took a lot of imagining to find a way of fitting this production – skillfully adapted by writer Olivia Mace from an 800+ page novel to a 2 hour show – deep inside a bookshop with only five actors to perform 20-odd roles and provide music (whose idea was it to eschew the convenient use of any sound that we could not make ourselves? Erm, yep. Never like to make things easy, me). But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The challenge, and the bookshop setting gave me a reason to declare everything; my favourite thing to do in theatre.

There is a real thrill to deciding not to hide anything from the audience; it puts them right with you, and with each other. Here we are in a room filled with bookcases and books. Here is a lighting rig we have had put in specially. Here is a massive story with just 5 actors to play all the parts, as well as instruments. Declaring everything means you can have fun with any problem the staging is causing you: instead of the stress of hiding the difficulty, you celebrate it. So, I had the stage set in the round, so that you could see the actors as they moved about, waiting to spring on to the stage as a new character, providing sound effects with books, voices, instruments. I had the pit lit so you can watch them prepare to play an instrument, or race around the edge to get to their next costume. We celebrated the necessity of onstage character changes – some of which we made very funny, others more sinister or magical. Everything was done with complete honesty and declaration. And playfulness. The actors are working incredibly hard with immense skill to achieve this. Thankfully the audience seem to love it.

There is a lot of room for humour when you celebrate staging problems. For example, there was one character who happened to be around when we had to do a big chunk of scene changing, a French maid called Hortense. Instead of dimming the lights for ladders and papers to be moved discreetly, I asked her to make a meal of how difficult the scene change was, and the fact that she had to do it by herself, by muttering crossly in French under her breath and then occasionally exploding in an incongruous French-isms (J’habite en Aberdeen!) to share her indignation with the audience. It was hilarious, and the scene change became the centre of her charater arc for us in rehearsal. It has added more than just comedy to the actor’s performance of this character. It has added a depth – why was she so angry? And pathos – what has she to lose? It was a lovely discovery that is still paying us back handsomely.

Our production of Bleak House is shot through with this kind of fun but that is not to say that the play does not have its serious side too. Liv’s adaptation is about social status and the haves and have nots. It is about fate, and chance. It is about love and loss and learning acceptance. I wanted to leave plenty of space for that so decided upon a very simple set of staging requirements; ladders and papers and books were all I wanted to use. Things you would find in a bookshop. The papers were of course the documents that drive the play (and drive some characters in the play mad) , but they were also the London fog; and the fog of paperwork that people in the story have to fight through. Ladders became places of respite as well as ambition. They became carriages and bird-lofts, ways underground and ways above everything. And books provided us with love letters, gunshots, horse hooves, wild birds and pages and pages and pages.

At the centre of all this is the story Liv decided to pull out of Dickens’ classic and retell. And I hope that story is alive right now in Oxford, as I type away in my study in West Yorkshire. It’s 7.31pm and tonight’s show will have just gone up. The cast will be singing in glorious harmony, papers will be ready to flutter down over the set and scores of imaginations in Blackwell’s bookshop will be running riot as they watch this amazing cast and a show we are all so proud of. I hope, if you are nearby enough, you manage to join them one night.

Bleak House runs at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford, until 7th March. Tickets can be booked here.

Produced by Creation Theatre
Adaptation by Olivia Mace
Directed by Debs Newbold
Musical Director, Joseph Atkins
DSM/Superwoman, Lucy Quinton
Ensemble Players: Joanna Holden, Eleanor House, Sophie Jacob, Bart Lambert, Morgan Philpott.