Exploring the dilemmas inherent in Dicken's Oliver Twist
Setting the classic tale during World War II creates a convincing drama
This article is from 2010.
Mary Tate's Livewire theatre company has been putting together productions with young, inexperienced casts for 10 years and her experience certainly shows in the writing and direction of this take on Oliver Twist
Her loose adaptation of Dickens' tale of life in the amoral no-man's-land of the London slums moves the action to a wartime setting. Oliver, played by the beguiling Erskine Wylie, becomes the orphaned son of a Jewish musician, Isaac, betrayed while fleeing pre-war Nazi Germany, and an English mother May.
The course of World War II is sketched in as her uncle and sister to trace Isaac and May. Oliver ends up taking refuge in a brothel in the ruins of Berlin as the Nazi terror gives way to the equally alarming advance of the Allied conquerors. Henry Weston-Davis and Fabia Tate deliver as the uncle and sister.
It is here that Tate's script works best, bringing together a group of characters based on the inhabitants of the original Fagin's den to explore the moral ambiguities created by the fight for everyday survival in a collapsed society. The bordello scenes are powerfully played as Mme Fagin takes money for accepting Jewish refugee children and employing them for the pleasure of German officers and other cruelty and violence from a savage Nazi soldier is portrayed.
Most senior of this gang are Heartful and Heartless, twins occupying the original Artful Dodger's character who bring home the brutalising effects on children of living through the chaotic and barbaric conditions of wartime. Meanwhile Nancy, one of the brothel's enforced workers - shows us how individuals 'of no importance' somehow have to come to terms with suffering and exploitation as a way of surviving from day to day.
As the narrative draws to its inevitable close - much truer to Dickens' savage original than the fairytale ending of Lionel Bart's musical - we are forced to confront the rights and wrongs of the situation of Mme Fagin - was she an admirable and Schindler-like protector of jewish children who would otherwise have perished in the death camps, or an evil expoiter of the poor, helpless and innocent? It's an uncomfortable moment.
The script and direction translates the wide-ranging and complex scenes with efficiency, and the ensemble pieces work well to create the backdrop for the action. The use of music and archive news reports is particularly effective.
A convincing drama from an accomplished company which handles difficult moral issues and in the end is dedicated to the memory of 'all of those of no importance, lest we forget their names'.