New York — It is a marvel of make-believe and a triumph of stage logistics. It brings the Victorian world of Charles Dickens tumultuously alive on the stage and into the auditorium of the Plymouth Theater.
It is of course, "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" in the extraordinary Royal Shakespeare Company version. The 8 1/2-hour David Edgar adaptation requires two sessions -- an appropriate enough arrangement for a work that originally appeared as a 20-part serial. Every major element has been included, from the malevolence of Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby to the benevolence of the Cheeryble brothers.
Directed with immense imagination by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, "Nicholas Nickleby" dedicates itself to the spirit and largeness of the novel, its melodramatic plots and subplots, momentous coincidences, uproarious comedy, and fearsome retributions. The tone of the enterprise is set from the moment the players begin strolling the aisles and circling the catwalk at the mezzanine's edge as they chat democratically with the spectators. With the hurried, last-minute convergence of the whole company on stage, the story begins.
The original title of the Dickens novel sums up the plot: "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family." What a career! And much of it manipulated by Nicholas's Uncle Ralph (John Woodvine), a cold and cunning usurer whose cruel designs multiply as Nicholas (Roger Rees) and his sister, Kate (Emily Richard), strive against them.
Begrudging his dead brother's family the protection and assistance he could well afford, rich Uncle Ralph instead "provides" for them to be self-supporting with demeaning and even degrading employment. The naive and adaptable Nicholas ships off to Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, where brutality is the rule and semistarvation the diet. Poor Kate successively goes to work at Mme. Mantalini's dressmaking establishment, endures a short tour of duty as companion to a Chelsea hysteric, and is subject to the offensive attentions of some of her Uncle Ralph's titled clients.
In unfolding his omnium-gatherum plot, Dickens called upon that seemingly endless parade of eccentrics and rogues, grotesques and buffoons, the evil-hearted and noble-minded, who populate his novels. Challenging the viciousness of the Squeerses (Alun Armstrong and Lila Kaye), Nicholas champions the miserable slavey Smike (David Threlfall), a retarded cripple long since abandoned by those who left him to the tender mercies of Dotheboys Hall. When the pair finally escaped the hated establishment, their adventures take them to Portsmouth and employment with the provincial troupe of Vincent Crummles (Christopher Benjamin) and his grandiloquent wife (Miss Kaye). The engagement transports "Nicholas Nickleby" to the uproariously funny climax of Part 1, a burlelsqued "Romeo and Juliet," with Nicholas as Romeo and Smike as the Apothecary, in which all ends happily.
Nicholas's uprisings and downfallings have been condensed into an admittedly marathon stage work. Narrative passages are handled in various ways by the actors, something singly and sometimes in a kind of Victorian Greek chorus. The songs and frequent incidental music are by Stephen Oliver.
The scenes flow cinematically. Visual effects are achieved with dazzling imagination. The actors create a stagecoach of wicker baskets and packing boxes. They form a human omnibus. As quick as a wink, John Napier and Dermot Hayes's bits and pieces of scenery are wagoned on and off the stage. The David Hersey lighting often provides the scenic effect. The stage machinery is always visible. Mr. Napier's more than 345 costumes range from haute couture to rags and tatters.
And the characterizations! Mr. Ree's Nicholas can be quietly humorous, but he is never condescending or priggish. If his style is rhetorical, his heart is pure and his hatred of injustice implacable.
Monster villian that he is, Mr. Armstrong's Squeers sees himself as a loving family man. Mr. Woodvine perceives that Ralph Nickleby's ruthlessness springs as much from his contempt for human frailty as from cupidity. By the intensity of his feeling, Mr. Threlfall elevates the devoted Smike into something more than a handicap victim. And what would the performance be without the diffident acumen of Edward Petherbridge's Newman Noggs or the meandering loquacity of Priscilla Morgan's Mrs. Nickleby? Miss Richard (Kate) and Lucy Gutteridge (Madeline Bray) make the case for demure but courageous Victorian maidens.
Some scenes are debatably superfluous. But the adaptation triumphs because the narrative grips the spectators (the heroes are cheered, the villians are booed) and because of its constant lively portraiture. Most of the Royal Shakespeare actors play more than one part. Lack of space rather than of admiration prevents detailing their versatility. Perhaps the most impressive contrast is achieved by Bob Peck as the bluff John Browdie and the sinister Sir Mulberry Hawk. But one thinks also of Mr. Benjamin (Crummles/Bray), Miss Kaye (Mrs. Crummles/Mrs. Squeers), and Suzanne Bertish (Fanny/Miss Snevellicci/Ped Sliderskew!).
"Nicholas Nickleby" ends with its own poignant contrast as it matches Christmastide jollity with a defiant plea for a more universal humanity here and now. It is a tribute to Dickens and fitting finale to a period spectacular with a heart.