Dickens Digested

The following article was first published in the November 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

David Lean’s 1946 film version of Great Expectations won two Academy Awards and went on to earn itself fifth place on the British Film Institute’s list of the best 20th century films. It’s also directly responsible for a theatrical presentation of the story coming to Lewes.

Shaun Hughes at Lewes Little Theatre
Photo by Mark Bridge for Viva Lewes

“I’ve always thought it was one of the best movies of all time”, says Shaun Hughes, who’s directing a stage version of Great Expectations at Lewes Little Theatre this month. “And that hooked me into Dickens.” Shaun’s theatrical career started when he was a professional dancer, before expanding into acting, singing and design. These days his stage work is a hobby, albeit a hobby that keeps him very busy: next year he’s directing Shakespeare’s King Lear in Surrey and then taking the show to Germany.

There’s a Shakespearean link with this version of the story, too. It was written in 2005 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod for the Royal Shakespeare Company and, Shaun tells me, attracted him because of its similarities with the RSC’s earlier production of Nicholas Nickelby. “That involved people talking to the audience directly, furniture came and went, and the actors played many roles. This reminded me very much of that.”

Compressing a 500-page novel into two hours has resulted in a show that’s “really fast paced”, according to Shaun. “There is a lot going on and all of the actors have got to play a variety of roles”. He’s using a composite set that represents a number of different locations, with cast members moving the staging when required, rather than relying on scene changes and stage crew. “There’s no such thing as an entire blackout. Something pulls the eye and the audience will look at it – which is only right; they’re here to watch a story being told.”

That tale takes place over quite a few years, so I ask Shaun how the aging of key characters will be conveyed. “Pip, the main character, will change costume on stage to show him changing from being a boy to a young man to an adult. There won’t be any makeup involved but it’ll be down to his ability to act. And Estella, the same. They’ll both be playing their younger selves and then their adult selves.” This sounds like challenging work for the cast, I suggest. “They’re all excellent, absolutely amazing.”

Ultimately, the fact that a lengthy 150-year-old novel can be transformed into a compact contemporary play is a testament to the skills of Charles Dickens. Shaun agrees wholeheartedly. “He’s writing stories that are romantic. They always end in a positive. Although there may be many negatives along the way, people always travel through his stories: Oliver, Pip, Scrooge – they travel and change… and come out the other end a better person. It’s very, very appealing.”

Great Expectations runs at Lewes Little Theatre from Saturday 24 November until Saturday 1 December 2018. lewestheatre.org