A Tale of Two Cities: Blood for Blood is a theatrical adaptation of in Dickens’ words “the best story I have written.” At one hour and twenty minutes it unfortunately does not feel long enough to convey the rich symbolism and recurring motifs of the novel. However, fresh aspects unique to this production help to compensate.
The set is striking; the stage is filled with chairs all lined up neatly in rows directly facing the audience. Some of these seats are smashed mid-performance to represent the violent storming of the Bastille. Nine ceiling lamps also hang from long wires, three of these are shoved forcefully (by cast members) at a couple of points to create an erratic, crazy lighting effect.
The character of Dr. Manette (who is side-lined somewhat due to time constraints), has another role as DJ Manette as his shoemaking desk becomes a mixing board from which he controls the play’s music and lighting effects – acapella intervals are also scattered between scenes. As a fan of the book, it was a shame that the “recalled to life” element that was such a central part of the novel is not really included. Manette, rather than experiencing a great transformation of character and relapsing according to circumstances, remains a static and timid figure whom it seems never recovers from his time in prison.
In terms of the story, the production remains largely faithful to source material with a few changes (which is impressive considering the relatively small cast size and short running length). The incident with the Marquis running over the child in his carriage is brought closer to home by inventing a scenario in which this is the Defarge couple’s son. Another, and perhaps the most striking, change is that Lucie and Sydney Carton actually spend one night together. For me this ruins some of the pure romanticism of Carton’s famous sacrifice.
With regards to the subtitle, the blood aspect is a prominent but subtle underlying theme of the play. While Dickens chooses to rather heavy-handedly link blood to wine in order to condemn the Sans-Coulotte wine merchants accused of inciting the common people to revolution, Blood for Blood chooses to focus on the revenge, family and bloodlines aspect of the text.
The chronological setting is confusing. It is hard to place the play exactly, or for that matter roughly, in time. The dialogue has been updated and, shockingly the best lines have been cut out altogether in some cases; where they have escaped the axe (or should I say la guillotine?) they are uttered as throwaway lines or uttered with bitter irony. For some this may be amusing, but for me it was frustrating and detracted from the integrity of the classic tale.
This said, there are certainly improvements on the novel where Blood for Blood has the edge on Dickens’ caricatures and at times sentimental and flowery prose. For one, Lucie actually seems to be a fully-fledged character and not some angelic architype of the Victorian ideal woman. Barsad is gender-swapped and given a greater role, providing a little comic relief in quite a grim play. Madame Defarge is developed further and becomes almost Joker-esque in her manic self-mutilation.
Dickens clear moralising is also curiously absent. At a distance of some 227 years since the start of the French Revolution, perhaps the need to examine what happened is less urgent in our time. Even so, the lack of a clear political message is strange from what is obviously political source material.
Overall the piece left me a little flat. While the acting could not be faulted, and the plot was of course complex and entertaining, one cannot help but feel that if such a text is resurrected (“recalled to life” if you will) it must be vital and have a purpose behind it. Adaptations of literary novels have long been a safe bet for theatre goers; I want to be challenged and convinced of their necessity.
Image: courtesy of production