A play about the greatest British novelist by one of our greatest modern writers performed by one of our greatest actors. What wouldn’t be to like in the biographical play The Mystery Of Charles Dickens? Very little it turns out though I suppose if you’re not a fan of the central figure you might find plenty of reasons to avoid this homage/celebration written by Peter Ackroyd and starring Simon Callow. Very swiftly the public, private and even secret lives of the author are put before us with Callow narrating the details and giving a bravura performance of many of Dickens’ most celebrated passages into the bargain.
And this is definitely Callow’s show despite the high-profile provenance of the two writers who provide the text. Appearing in the sort of garb that Dickens might have worn himself at his celebrated public readings Callow’s performance is intense, energetic and fully committed with a camera swooping in for detailed close ups – at several points he swigs heartily from a carafe of water; unsurprising when you see him in action. I lost count of how many of Dickens’ creations he brought to life (the original theatre blurb counts 49) and this by no more than a twist of the body and a realignment of his resonant voice. In a late section when he recreates the sight and sound of Dickens playing out the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist it is all to easy to see why it habitually drained Dickens to the point where carrying on contributed to his death. It is also easy to see why it truly terrified the audience for Callow/Dickens does not so much narrate events as inhabit them calling forth the very souls of the girl, her attacker Sikes and even the dog, Bullseye. Yes, it is melodramatic, yes, it is manipulative but Callow pulls it off with consummate mastery.
Nor is it all in this vein. Along the way there is typical Dickensian pathos such as the death of Little Nell, grandiose writing as in the opening lines of Bleak House and above all humour in character sketches of such as Mrs Gamp, Alfred Jingle Mr Podsnap and a host of others. Ackroyd/Callow’s choice of Dickensian text also encompass some lesser known passages such as the Boy From Mugby Junction and the garrulous landlady Mrs Lirriper. Interspersed among these gems are biographical details of Dickens’ life. They are necessary to set the passages in context and give a view of how the genius of the writer came to dominate the Victorian literary scene. But if you are at all familiar with Dickens’ life, they can be a slightly irritating distraction from the main feast, and they are nearly all well documented aspects already. Indeed, much of the text for these episodes is culled from Ackroyd’s own mammoth (1,000 pages plus) biography of the man. And it’s not made particularly clear what the “mystery” of the title is. Does it refer to the secret life of Dickens as a child in the blacking factory about which he never publically spoke? Does it refer to the passion he conceived first for his sister in law, Mary Hogarth and then for the young actress Ellen Ternan leading to the reprehensible treatment of his wife Catherine? Does it refer to the puzzle of where his ideas, his energy and his zeal came from? The title might more accurately have been rendered “mysteries” for all these things contributed to the enigma which was the man; he, himself, was the ultimate mystery.
The play is very simply staged and clearly the starting point is Dicken’s famous reading tours, though Patrick Garland rightly does away with a lectern in order to give Callow/Dickens free rein to roam the whole stage. The front cloth features the famous Robert Buss painting Dickens’ Dream and this theme is continued with the angled picture frames which make up the set. The backcloth is washed with colour to suit the mood of the particular piece being performed. But it is all simple widow dressing for the key atmosphere is created by Dickens’ vivid writing and Callow’s equally vivid performance. Having seen this play performed live in 2000 (it was revived for a season in 2012) I’m pretty certain that this video is an edited down version of the original. Even so it comes across powerfully on screen and it is good that this dazzling performance has been captured for posterity. I knew it had reworked its magic as I felt an irresistible urge to plunge back into one of the original novels. Dickens/Ackroyd/Callow had worked their magic.
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