Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A little Dickens or a lot. . . your choice

If you live in or near the Toronto area, I highly recommend that you catch the Chichester Festival production of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until April. Yes, it's long - divided into two parts, the entire production runs six and a half hours - but it's a great example of terrific, energetic, ensemble acting. Twenty-seven actors play multiple roles and there's not a noticeably weak link among the lot. You certainly have to give them props for stamina. The set design and lighting were ingenious, and the end of Part I, where the Crummles Theatre Company puts on their own version of Romeo and Juliet, was nothing short of pure comic delight.
I left the theatre immediately wanting to dive into some more Dickens but if you could see the tower of fall manuscripts on my living room floor at the moment, you'd agree with me that perhaps this isn't the best time to start a 700 page Victorian novel. So instead I plucked this delightful Hesperus Press offering from my shelves. Somebody's Luggage is a collection of short stories originally published in the 1862 Christmas edition of Dickens' magazine, All The Year Round. It has a great premise: Christopher, the opinionated waiter of a London hotel, comes into possession of some luggage left under a bed by a former guest, and on examining it in detail (it contains a hat box, umbrella, a brown paper parcel, a black bag, a desk and dressing case, and a black portmanteau), he discovers the contents are crammed with pages of writing - the short stories that make up this little book. They were written not only by Dickens, but by four other regular contributors to his magazine, including Charles Allston Collins (brother of Wilkie). Dickens contributes two tales and writes the framing stories of how Christopher finds the luggage and what happens at the end when the original owner comes back to reclaim it. Or to use Christopher's voice:
Before I proceed to recount the mental sufferings of which I became the prey in consequence of the writings, and before following up that harrowing tale with a statement of the wonderful and impressive catastrophe, as thrilling in its nature as unlooked for in any other capacity, which crowned the ole and filled the cup of unexpectedness to overflowing, the writings themselves ought to stand forth to view.
It takes so little to lose onself in Dickens' imaginative world, doesn't it? The stories are quite varied. One involves a ghost, an umbrella and the leap year; others include characters as unusual as a fairy godmother, shipwrecked survivors stranded on an iceberg, and a pavement chalk artist who feels hard done by. And all are somewhat linked by the ideas of possessions - whether of people, objects, ideas or art. Great fun and definately not only for fans of Dickens.

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