Fagin’s follies

Neil Bartlett's Oliver Twist
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 13, 2007

070216_inside_theater
Michael Wartella as Oliver
Forget the pint-sized urchin asking for “more.” There are no children in British adapter/director Neil Bartlett’s Oliver Twist, which opens at American Repertory Theatre this week. There is a gang of boys used and abused by criminal mentor Fagin, but the adult actors making up their number range upward in age to 50. In the Victorian music hall–inspired staging, which London’s Daily Telegraph calls “truly stunning theater,” these “boys,” when not relieving Londoners of their purses, make up a street band who play period music-hall tunes set to Dickens’s prose, accompanying themselves on fiddle, serpent, and hurdy-gurdy; Bartlett says it “sounds like an orchestrated version of a sock full of cats being murdered.” Another thing: bad Bill Sykes hasn’t got a dog. Is this a W.C. Fields–like aversion to sharing the stage with kids or animals? Hardly, says Bartlett. “Do you know what a performing dog costs? Vastly more than actors.”

But don’t get the idea Bartlett is out to reinvent Dickens. “It is extraordinary how long the story has lived in the popular imagination,” he says of the 1938 work. “The first staging was done before Dickens had even finished the novel. I want to give people all of the parts of the story that they already know and love. But sometimes a familiar story can become clouded, and sometimes it becomes bowdlerized. In this version, the words you hear are all by Charles Dickens. For me, some of the most striking twists and turns of the narrative are ones that many adaptations leave out. For people coming who are only familiar with Lionel Bart’s version [the 1960 musical Oliver!], they may be very surprised to learn what happens to Fagin and the Artful Dodger in Dickens’s original. I want to give people the Dickens that I love, who’s a fiery, angry, and compassionate young man. He wrote this book when he was only 25.”

Bartlett’s production moves from ART to New York’s Theatre for a New Audience, where it’s part of a themed season that also includes The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. So does the production emphasize Fagin’s religion? “I wouldn’t say we’re playing it up. Fagin is a Jew. Dickens tells us that the night before he’s hung in Newgate Prison he prays and blasphemes in his cell. He’s a Jew; he must pray and blaspheme in Hebrew, and he does in this production. The staging and the theatrical style of the piece are very influenced by the early Victorian theater, the theater of footlights and flying scenery and melodramatic stereotype. In that theater, there’s no dividing wall between the audience and the performance. Fagin knows he is being watched by the audience; he knows he is being judged. He both plays up to and plays with their expectations that Fagin should be not a Jew but The Jew: capital T, capital J. That is part of the way we tell the story – that he has a very active and complex relationship with that stereotype. He neither fills it nor ducks it, but he works it.”

Oliver Twist | American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Cambridge | February 17–March 24 | $29-$76; $15 students | 617.547.8300

On the Web
American Repertory Theatre: www.amrep.org

  Topics: Theater , Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Neil Bartlett,  More more >
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