With Bleak House opening next weekend we asked our wonderful writer Olivia Mace to give a little insight into how such a thing as a two hour Charles Dickens script comes in to being!
I don’t know about you but my feelings about a book are always entwined with whoever I was at the time I read it. The ﬁrst time I read Bleak House by Charles Dickens, I happened to be performing in a beautiful Christmas show for Creation theatre, The Magical Tales of Hans Christian Anderson. Every night after the show, I would climb aboard the Oxford Tube, scrape my make up off, settle back in the darkness and get submerged into a very strange world of courtrooms, carriage journeys, crazy old ladies and smouldering junk shops. I’d chosen to commute from London because I was in a new relationship, with someone I’d met that Summer working for Creation as a matter of fact. Every time I’ve read the book since, it has brought back the feeling of travelling through darkness, covered in stage dust, with something exciting appearing on the horizon.
A few years went by and I did a bit less acting and a bit more making. I began writing songs then plays. In 2017 I was at the Vaults festival doing a little show I’d written in a caravan about a mad nun (why not?) when along came the magniﬁcent Lucy Askew to see me. Now, it just so happened that Creation’s resident Summer company had a two week gap in their run of Alice in Wonderland and while we were chin-wagging Lucy asked me if I would like to take my short show and turn it into something for ﬁve people, so I got to go and play with a bunch of amazing actors for a week and we made Playing the King with a little bit of original music for good measure.
This is starting to sound like a C.V but what I’m trying to explain is that for a writer Good Ideas are really not lightbulbs or lightning bolts that come out of nowhere. Instead a hundred utterly random but ultimately connected stepping stones take you to your destination and when you arrive it all just makes sense. That fortnight writing for and playing with those actors opened doors inside me. I was yearning to do more. Did I have any ideas, Lucy asked. And it turned out I did have one. The idea of a Bleak House musical didn’t pop into my head suddenly it just tapped me on the shoulder to remind me it had always been there.
There are a lot of characters and worlds in the original text, which Charles Dickens wrote in weekly episodes. I couldn’t ﬁt it all in. Well, I could but the show would be 20 hours long and nobody loves Dickens that much. Not even me. So, I had to take everything apart and reassemble it. I think of it as pulling out the heartstring of the story and then bringing back everything needed to serve that. It’s a trick I learned from a brilliant storyteller and friend Debs Newbold who is, serendipitously, directing our production. She is a storyteller and a director. I’m an actor and a playwright. So this process has been a very active one. Charles Dickens was a storyteller, reading his books to audiences all over the world, and he wanted to be an actor. He apparently used to have conversations with himself in the mirror as he wrote. His characters, while larger than life, are rawly human. We all know a puffed up Mrs Pardiggle who goes on about good causes but won’t get their hands dirty. The scatty old lady of the courtrooms is someone we might recognise too. Charles’ forte was character and caricature, but every one of his subject is forged in a place of truth, and they were all probably inspired by real people in his wide social circle. The young man Joe, who sweeps the streets of London was, I believe, based on a real boy Charles would have known. And Richard, I dare say was a bloke he went to school with. Someone who had been taught everything it’s possible to learn but not how to think on his own. John Jarndyce, I’m convinced, was a version of Charles himself. And Esther… Who is Esther? Half the book is told from her perspective and the rest from a mysterious third person. Well, Esther became the centre of our play and the Bleak House story we serve is hers. The other voice is our company of actors. Like Dickens they are with you all the way. In spirit, at your elbow.
I hope he would approve of what we’re doing. For everything his story has given me I have in turn tried to give something back to it and to the incredible group of players who are bringing it to life. Since Charles kept so many people in his head it seems only right that they play about ten people each. The birds’ songs are taken from the trees of my home in South London. And at the heart of it there is a young woman trying very hard to be good. So, Bleak House is the product of a journey, a lot of journeys on the Oxford Tube one winter long ago, and all the steps it has taken me since, to arrive at the ﬁnal page. As for the man who I was rushing back to every night, well reader, I married him. So Creation has given me rather a lot. I am overjoyed to have given this script and score to them. They are making it into something quite remarkable. They’re taking it on the next step of the journey. I hope you’ll come along to Blackwell’s Bookshop sometime in February and carry it home.
Scandal. Secrets. Obsession.
Watch Dickens’ classic tale of inheritance, mystery and obsession, surrounded by three miles of bookshelves in Blackwell’s subterranean Norrington Room.
Esther does not know who she is by birth, but when her Godmother dies and she is sent to Bleak House, that’s when her life really begins…