Having spent a lot of time on Shakespeare related material over the last four days it made a pleasant change to turn to that other genius of English Literature, Charles Dickens. It was the 150th anniversary of Dickens’ death just over a fortnight ago and, by one of those wonderful coincidences that you couldn’t make up, Eddie Izzard shares the same birth date as Dickens – separated by … 150 years. And the comedian’s discovery of this fact has resulted in a show called Expectations Of Great Expectations which is receiving five live streamed performances in order to support the Make Humanity Great Again project and highlight the plight of UK Theatre at this time.
The piece is still in development as a work in progress and is part audio book reading and part one-person performance. Izzard’s own brother has abridged the novel and compressed it into a 90 minute monologue that comes across with conviction and evident love for the subject matter. In the past Izzard has learned whole shows in various foreign languages, has run back to back charity marathons and taken on international politics not to mention challenging the status quo by being one of the first public figures to openly acknowledge transgender status. In this instance his challenge has been to commit to learning the whole text and he is doing so in chunks that move backwards through the novel. Thus, the show begins as a reading – the sort of method that Dickens used to popularise his novels in his own day. As in the book we are swiftly at the famous scene when the young Pip encounters the escaped convict and the well-known tale of the young orphaned boy who grows up to be a gentleman begins in earnest.
About a third of the way through the book is abandoned and memory takes over. Actually, it transpires that the first section is the most difficult to put across; as a severe dyslexic, there are points at which we can see Izzard having difficulty. He is probably better off memorising than reading aloud and it is certainly the case that the whole piece comes alive as the book is put to one side and Izzard can make direct connection with the audience. In this instance of course that connection is made down the lens of a video camera and I’m sure the performance is a little diminished simply from having no immediate reaction – the sort of thing which in normal circumstances would provide fuel to the performance.
The element of whimsy often found in Dickens is captured well and Izzard makes a memorable fist of iconic characters such as Estella, Joe Gargery and Magwitch. His reading/performance of the Miss Havisham scenes is particularly effective. Inevitably some of the personalities have hit the cutting room floor and others are introduced for moments of colour and then dropped – mind you Dickens was not exactly backward at doing the same. The pacing of events retains interest and all the memorable moments of the narrative are intact. As Izzard explains at the start it took David Lean two hours to tell the story in the most famous film version so getting it down to an even shorter time frame is no mean feat.
There is one level of regret in that we get to see nothing of Izzard’s phenomenal improvisational skills and celebrated digressions from the main theme; rather he religiously sticks to his textual guns. For the first fifteen minutes or so I kept expecting him to break out of the restriction he had imposed upon himself but perhaps remaining true to the text is another part of the challenge.
If you’re intrigued by the concept but cannot make one of the remaining two shows you might be interested to know that Izzard has also made a 20+ hours audio recording of the whole Dickens text which will be available from Audible in the next couple of days (click here). He never makes things easy for himself, does he?
Expectations Of Great Expectations is performed live via Komedia, Brighton but only for the next couple of days. Click here
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