Adapting Martin Chuzzlewit

Cynthia Ashperger

Cynthia Ashperger

Just had the first run of Martin Chuzzlewit which I am directing at Ryerson. It is by Charles Dickens in a great adaptation by Michael Hollingsworth. The text has sixty seven scenes and forty characters. Dickens thought the novel his best. Love Dickens…what stories what characters what a heart! I was delighted with how we told the story!…And we have two weeks to go.

So said Cynthia Ashperger, the Director of the Acting Program at Ryerson University, speaking of Wednesday’s rehearsal.

Thursday? Connective tissue.  If there are sixty-seven scenes in two acts, how many scene changes does that make?  Many of them involve music, either instrumental or sung, often diegetic (which means that the music is heard by the personages in Dickens’ world).  I’m the Music Director.  I’m writing this in some respects to explain why I’m AWOL from my usual blogging, a confession. Last year it was Feydeau, this year it’s Hollingsworth’s adaptation of Dickens.

Tonight it was time to focus on getting from one scene to the next, which is less a matter of acting and more a matter of logistics and putting bodies and pieces of set in the right place.  If there are sixty scene-changes and each one is ten seconds long, that’s ten minutes of this play that are spent watching people move onto and off of the stage.  While those can be understood as opportunities to segue, to move from one reality to another, they must be swift & expeditious, otherwise the evening is prolonged.

I am continually astonished by what I see at Ryerson.  I went to University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, which is a laboratory to explore the workings of drama, whereas Ryerson is a place for actors to learn & perfect their discipline(s).  Tonight was less for the actors—although they were indispensable—than for the backstage cohort.  Some of the scene changes require the actors to come out and move parts of the set, some require help from backstage with big movable pieces on wheels.  Sound cues come into play as do musical cues, some of which were created on the spot tonight (fun!).

I’m particularly bemused looking at Hollingsworth’s adaptation, compared to what I saw on TV when I rented the BBC video.  That video is full of stars, beautiful costumes & picturesque locations.  It’s also missing many of the most effective elements of the novel.  Adaptation is more than anything a matter of choice when you take a huge novel and bring it to any other medium.  What do you choose to include? What do you have to omit?  Recalling Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, there are several film adaptations running about two hours in length, and also the six hour-long adaptation that helped launch Colin Firth’s career as heart-throb.  If the story is to be told in two hours, compromises must be made.

In the case of that BBC mini-series of Martin Chuzzlewit, the compromise was to omit almost all of the adventures in America. The BBC get Tom Wilkinson & Paul Scofield who offer powerful performances (here’s a link to the first part on youtube).

Hollingsworth leaves out some of the London incidents, no great loss in my opinion, but gives us much more colour.  We see much more of America, and Hollingsworth’s villains are more fully fleshed out.

Instead of stars such as Wilkinson, Scofield et al, Ashperger hands the text to her third year students, a capable & gifted bunch of diverse talents.  Each day Dickens comes more fully to life, the scenes–as well as the transitions–getting swifter & smoother.  This is challenging stuff, much harder to pull off than anything you’ll see on a commercial stage.  I’m reminded of that eight-hour adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which was uncompromising and  wonderfully theatrical.  Hollingsworth’s Martin Chuzzlewit is less than half that length, gradually getting closer to three hours.  But in some respects that’s what acting schools are for, both as training grounds, and as the stewards of great dramatic literature.  Ashperger is making a statement with this choice of play, a challenge to her class.  But if a drama school won’t undertake great & daunting works, who will?

Sigh… It’s such a privilege to be there.  When I’m not playing, I’m completely absorbed by the story.

And now, as Cynthia said, Martin Chuzzlewit is into the last two weeks.  It’s already remarkable.  Now we need to make it truly magical.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Theatre & musicals, university life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Adapting Martin Chuzzlewit

  1. Thanks for the great opening night!

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