“Is this a theatre?” whispered Smike, in amazement; “I thought it was a blaze of light and finery.”
“Why, so it is,” replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; “but not by day, Smike—not by day.”
~Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
by Sydney Wren
Originally published at All the (Dickensian) Year Round
It begins so innocuously with those quirky, slightly dated-sounding notes (now forever beloved) of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1981 filmed stage production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Who knew that this brainchild of Trevor Nunn, in collaboration with John Caird and adapted for the stage by David Edgar, born of necessity rather than superfluity, would be such a life-changing testament to the power of theatre and the power of Dickens, even forty years after its live production? Decades and distances later, it remains the ultimate Dickensian romp, hilarious and heartbreaking. If there is one single piece of recorded material ~ e.g. music, movies, etc ~ that I could take with me to the proverbial desert island, it would be this production.
The legendary, 8 ½ hour stage marvel was conceived not during a time of financial excess for the RSC, but during a time of straitened means; in fact, Leon Rubin’s fascinating The Nicholas Nickleby Story which relates the history of this undertaking, writes that by “August 1979, the RSC was in grave financial trouble.” Roger Rees mentions in an interview much later that the Arts Council was going to be cutting the funding for the RSC “in half.” But, according to Rubin, “Trevor’s philosophy was that the best form of defense is attack, and he believed that what he needed to find was a single piece of work that would provide a challenging acting opportunity for the entire company…He decided on an adaptation of a Dickens novel, that would harness in one work all the RSC’s vast resources and demonstrate what that company could really achieve.” There were forty-three actors in the company at that time, and they were already in the midst of seven Shakespeare plays and thirteen others simultaneously; yet Trevor was looking for that one piece that could display it all. Many of the Inimitable’s works were read and considered; ultimately, Nickleby won the day as “the best vehicle for their particular range of talents.”
And Nicholas Nickleby really did have it all: the heartrending emotional center of the novel in Smike (David Threlfall, a performance for the ages); the cross-section of the various social classes and Dickens’ satire of them (several examples brilliantly embodied in the chameleon Suzanne Bertish, and the marvelous Bob Peck, may he rest in peace); the potential for suspenseful drama in everything from Dotheboys Hall (Alun Armstrong, Ian McNeice, Lila Kaye, Suzanne Bertish!) to the Brays; the adorable comicality and pathos of Newman Noggs (Edward Petherbridge, I love you!); the scenery-chewing Crummles and Mantalinis (John McEnery, may you rest in peace my “seraphim,” my “life and soul,” my “essential juice of pine-apple,” you’re a demd genius!) and the most hilarious piece of comic staging in the Crummles’ production of Romeo and Juliet ~ one of the most brilliant divergences from the novel and possibly the single funniest sequence I have seen in my life, on stage or screen. (Alun Armstrong as the drunken Prince…that’s all I’ll say!) And yet, in quintessentially Dickensian fashion, David Edgar manages to echo a touching segment from this farce to the most heartbreakingly poignant effect later in the play ~ an echo which is, again, a perfectly-conceived divergence from the novel. But no spoilers here…
And, of course, Roger, our beloved Nicholas, who had to carry (sometimes literally) the drama.
It was a quixotic feat, this risk of trusting the audience to journey with the company for one of the most unlikely (and, probably, lengthy) of theater experiences imaginable. They pulled out all the stops, as the actors themselves created the sounds of wind and birdsong and, with little help from props, managed to convey every atmosphere from gloomy Yorkshire to the sounds of the sea at Portsmouth, to the chaos and energy of London. The production was split into two parts, the first part of four hours was sometimes performed during the day, and the audience would return in the evening for the final over-four hours after a long interval; sometimes the first part was performed on one day and the second part was performed the following.
The play opens with a stage full of actors performing a dramatic “reading” of an amended version of the novel’s opening ~ which, as Chapter One announces in its title, “Introduces all of the Rest.” We hear of the the older generation of Nicklebys: the brothers who have fared very differently with their inheritances from their father, Godfrey Nickleby. The younger brother, who is the father of the Nicholas Nickleby we come to know and love, becomes financially ruined (while his older brother prospers) and dies a too-early death. Then, as the prologue concludes, the cast suddenly swings into vibrant action as they relate the beginning of sorrow and adventure for the surviving family of the younger brother ~ his widow and her son and daughter, Nicholas and Kate ~ as they leave their idyllic farm in Devonshire for the chaotic journey to London in hopes of finding aid from their uncle, the jaded, Scrooge-like Ralph Nickleby (John Woodvine).
From there, we follow the dual adventures of Nicholas (and later, Smike) from Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, to the delightful mess of the Crummles theatrical company, and back to London; while Kate battles her own dragons in a town filled with rich, lecherous scoundrels and jealous, knagging Miss Knags. (Though how on earth does she keep a straight face around John McEnery as Mr. Mantalini?)
Ultimately, this joyous Bildungsroman is love letter to the theatre itself, to friendship and family, and to the ideal of taking a hand in lifting up those who are suffering; the willingness to bring others into our family and our hearts, even if we suspect it will bring heartbreak and loss. A love letter to the ideal that love always triumphs, and that generosity of heart is always worth the cost.
Roger Rees, a convert to Judaism, was born the son of a shop clerk and a police officer on May 5th, 1944, in Aberystwyth, Wales. (Of course he’d be a Welshman, with that gorgeous voice!) He is perhaps best known for his roles in the TV series Cheers or The West Wing. He was an accomplished actor, stage director, and playwright. Roger was nearly 40 when he took on the legendary role of the 19-year old Nicholas, and with an energy that most 19-year-olds might well envy. We believe him at every moment; he captures our hearts with his indomitably brave, yet vulnerable, goodness and sincerity. He makes us laugh, charms us, and breaks our hearts.
When it opened in 1980, Nickleby took some time to find its footing; critics clearly didn’t know what the Dickens to make of it, with all its muffin-tossing antics, its United Metropolitan Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company speeches, its random characters. But it finally hit its stride after Bernard Levin’s tide-turning review in The Times, and it’s worth quoting a lengthy passage here:
Some of the critical comment that has greeted the production makes one despair not just of criticism but of the human race…The response has exhibited that most dreadful of all the vices anglaise, the terror of being thought enthusiastic; most of the reviewers have spent their time carefully balancing praise for one detail against regret for another…
There is only one way to behave at the Aldwych; to surrender completely to the truth, which is that not for many years has London’s theatre seen anything so richly joyous, so immoderately rife with pleasure, drama, colour and entertainment, so life-enhancing, yea-saying and fecund, so—in one word which embraces all these and more—so Dickensian…It is a celebration of love and justice that is true to the spirit of Dickens’ belief that those are the fulcrums on which the universe is moved, and the consequence is that we come out not merely delighted but strengthened, not just entertained but uplifted, not only affected but changed.
Nicholas Nickleby won Roger both a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony; the recorded version won him an Emmy nomination.
At every age, Roger surely had one of the most memorable and beautiful faces onscreen. A little aside: the first time I saw him, before I knew his name, was later in his life in the role of the rather mysterious middleman, Owens, in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. I was struck by that face, and, unaccountably, I recognized him. I had seen a photograph ~ yes, only a photograph ~ of a younger Roger as Nickleby some time before, when I had been researching other (mostly far older) stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels. What a revelation when I finally realized that one could see the RSC production still!
On July 10th 2015, I was utterly heartbroken to hear that my beloved Roger had died of cancer. (I read later that he’d been slated to star in an RSC production of Don Quixote which was supposed to happen in 2016, a year after his death…break my heart yet again.) Now, every year on July 10th ~ I am posting this a day early ~ I’ve been recalling Roger Rees’ life and work gratitude, even though I know only a fraction of both. For this year’s celebration of his memory, I’ve ordered a memoir about Roger, written by his longtime partner of 33 years ~ whom he married in 2011 ~ Rick Elice, and I’m hugely looking forward to it. I am also eager to get to know more of his other works ~ and, of course, to watch Nicholas Nickleby yet again, which, as of the time of this writing, can still be found on YouTube or on DVD. And I will be eternally grateful to whomever had the foresight to record it for the ages.
His was a face, a voice, and a luminous talent that one never forgets. And though I won’t give it away, never can one forget the final tableau of this production once one has seen it, with Roger front and center and the chorus of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen echoing across the stage. It just may change your life.
We will never forget you, Roger. And to quote Dickens’ novel itself, “If our affections be tried, our affections are our consolation and comfort; and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better.” Rest in peace, sweet prince of the stage.