AMONG an array of theatrical productions on offer at this year’s Belfast Festival is Sam McCready’s stage adaptation of the first section of the Charles Dickens classic Nicholas Nickleby, here produced by Fringe Benefits.
Nicholas Nickleby was Dickens’ third novel and was originally published as a serial from 1838 to 1839 with the Victorian public eagerly anticipating each instalment of the tale, which follows the eponymous Nicholas as he sets to work as a tutor at Dotheboys Hall, where he discovers terrible conditions presided over by the dastardly Wackford Squeers and his wife.
When it was published Nicholas Nickleby was an immediate and complete success, and helped to establish Dickens’ lasting reputation.
“The penniless Nickleby family travel to London looking for help from an Uncle Ralph – a mean and unscrupulous man, who, it turns out, is uninterested in helping other members of the family,” says Sam, a writer, acclaimed director and former teacher.
“Ralph gets a job for Nickleby at Dotheboys Hall and he goes there full of optimism, ready to be a tutor. But he finds the conditions there absolutely appalling. It’s a private school where unwanted children are sent and they are treated terribly – starved, neglected, beaten. Nicholas is shocked by what he sees here.
“One of the boys he meets is called Smike; he has been at the school for years, has no idea who his family is and is being treated as good as a slave.”
Here as throughout his extensive body of work, Dickens manages to entertain while advancing important social observations; the writer’s passion for unveiling injustice was crusading, fired by his own experiences as an adolescent. The conditions of the working poor in Victorian England and the hardships suffered by young people were always subjects that drew his interest because Dickens himself was, because of his family’s poverty, forced to leave school and work 10-hour days at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, near Charing Cross railway station, where he earned six shillings a week pasting labels on pots of boot blacking.
The cruel working conditions made a lasting impression and influenced his fiction and essays, as well as charging his sense of the importance of reform of socioeconomic and labour conditions: he wanted a system in which the poor were not so unfairly burdened.
Nickleby casts an eagle eye on the maltreatment of the young and the stark power imbalance between rich and poor in Victorian England.
The style is considered to be episodic and humorous, and Dickens began writing the work while still finishing Oliver Twist. While the mood here is notably lighter, his depiction of the Yorkshire school run by Wackford Squeers is moving and influential in the same way the keenly observed delineation of the workhouse and criminal underclass pull on the reader’s conscience in Oliver Twist.
“This is very entertaining, but Dickens’ main intention was to draw attention to the conditions many children were being subjected to in the boarding schools of his day,” adds Sam.
“Dickens actually visited schools of the type depicted in the novel, claiming he wanted to send a child there, in order to assess how the children were being treated. It was an issue that mattered to him a great deal.”
In fact the cruelty of a real Yorkshire schoolmaster named William Shaw became the basis for Dickens’s brutal Wackford Squeers. Dickens visited his school and based the school section of Nicholas Nickleby on his visit.
In the novel Nicholas finds that the villainous Wackford Squeers and his wife are running an elaborate scam, taking in unwanted children – many of them illegitimate – for a high fee, then starving and mistreating their charges while using the money sent by the relatives to line their own pockets. Squeers and his wife whip and beat the children regularly while spoiling their own son rotten.
The author’s rage at injustice is always forceful.
And in the novel the boys come out on top, as, with wit and resourcefulness, Nickleby heroically defends them against the insults and humiliations of the vicious Squeers.
Sam has adapted the first part of the novel for the stage, calling it Nicholas Nickleby at Dotheboys Hall.
“The Royal Shakespeare Company did an adaptation of the novel back in the 1980s which I saw, and that acted as something of a model for me here. But as well as that, Dickens was very interested in the stage, and like any good storyteller, the characters he creates are really alive. He gives you the dialogue that characters say to each other – which is always so vivid and well observed. So really much of Nickleby easily lends itself to the stage.”
Some 17 actors here double up and switch costumes, accents and mannerisms to give us the 40 colourful characters of this adaptation of one of the great Victorian classics.
“People love Dickens for the stories he tells and the characters he creates and Nicholas Nickleby is among his best works.
“Even though this is set in Victorian times it is still addressing issues that are very much with us today, issues like the mistreatment of children and the cruelty of human nature.
“Dickens was able to entertain people wonderfully, but he also put across important messages in his work – truths about who we are and how we fail each other. His observations are universal – they never grow old.”
::Nicholas Nickleby at Dotheboys Hall runs at the Crescent Arts Centre, October 25-28 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s. To book tickets call the box office on 02890 971197 or visit www.belfastfestival.com.