Monday, April 12, 2010
Andersen's English at Hampstead Theatre
Despite its title Sebastian Barry’s play, Andersen's English is far more about the life of Charles Dickens than about that of the Danish poet and writer Hans Christian Andersen.
Barry’s play is set during the summer of 1857 when Andersen visited Dickens at his home in Gad’s Hill in Kent intending to stay a fortnight but eventually staying on for five weeks. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark for Out of Joint, the play is a strange mixture of culture clash comedy and domestic drama that manages to shed little light on the characters of either of these eccentric but gifted men.
As Andersen does not speak English particularly well he is oblivious to much of the tension within the Dickens family. He is only dimly aware of all the torment and disharmony around him and departs with the impression of having stayed in a warm and loving household.
Dickens, as written by Barry, is a fairly unpleasant and controlling man, who has grown tired of his wife, Catherine, the mother of his many children. He has a complex and close though unconsummated relationship with Catherine’s sister Georgie and is about to fall for the young actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he starred on stage in Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep. Catherine will eventually be banished from the family home entirely.
The scenes concerning Dickens’ family life are, at times, engrossing but the play features many odd lurches in tone. Some scenes are played as broad comedy, others as wrenching drama, and the two never really knit together. With the exception of two brief scenes at the beginning and end of the play, Barry never allows Andersen to speak in his own language; his English is fractured and mangled, halting and awkward, making it impossible to get a sense of him as man. Barry presents his surface quirks – he carries a length of rope in his suitcase in case a fire breaks out – but denies him his own true voice.
The production itself also features unexpected and not altogether successful tonal shifts. Rather ungainly puppets are used to stand in for some of the Dickens children and the cast occasionally break into song. Though there is some pleasure to be taken in the way the cast trample over Lucy Osborne’s attractively cluttered set, turning dining chairs into stepping stones and a grand piano into a hilltop picnic spot, the production feels like it is struggling with itself, unsure of what it really wants to be.
David Rintoul (in an amusingly elaborate wig) plays Dickens as a talented yet demanding and difficult man, who is rather over-fond of his own voice, while Niamh Cusack gives the play its emotional centre, as the hard done by Catherine, stung by her rejection by her husband, worn down by the bearing of so many children (ten in all), and desperately scared for her son Walt who is being dispatched to India by a rather disinterested Dickens.
Danny Sapani does what he can with the character of Andersen, suggesting a measure of sadness beneath all the surface oddity, but the device of focusing on Andersen’s broken English never really justifies itself. The audience does not see the Dickens’ household through his eyes nor does it gain much in the way of insight into Andersen as a man. Catherine is the only one who seems to connect with him, but even their freindship is not developed as much as it could have been.
Barry has also grafted on a subplot about Dickens’ young Irish housemaid, a young woman with whom Walt is besotted and who finds herself pregnant. Though Lisa Kerr’s performance in this role is spirited and enjoyable this strand of the play feels superfluous, adding another splash of colour to what is an already muddy palette.
Reviewed for musicOMH