„Great Expectations“ by Charles Dickens. The New Premiere at The English Theatre of Hamburg

„What a beauty you are, Estella.“ Photo: Stefan Kock

As a child I was infatuated with the books by Charles Dickens.
I always gave my mother a hard time when she wanted me to go to sleep. “David Copperfield” was a particularly good read which I secretly enjoyed when mum had left my room after kissing me good night. Later when my brother borrowed me “Great Expectations”, Dickens’s thirteenth novel, I was first shaken with horror while reading Pip’s encounter with Magwitch on the graveyard in rural Kent. The convict who assailed Pip had just escaped from a ship bound for Australia, Britain’s gruesome penal colony. The book proved a real page turner which I did not close before having read the last line.

As to be expected, the British made a film of this wonderful novel in the mid-fortieth of the last century, featuring stars such as Alec Guiness und Jean Simmons. However, when it came to Hamburg under the title “Geheimnisvolle Erbschaft” (Mysterious Inheritance) I was denied access to the cinema. They told me that I was far too young for such murderous stuff. Years later when I saw this black and white movie I was absolutely thrilled by the performance of the late actors.

What a surprise when I heard that the English Theatre of Hamburg intended to adapt “Great Expectations” for the stage. A brilliant idea indeed. However, it was hard for me to imagine that anyone could make a play of this intricate story. Having attended the premiere, I agree that it is possible, provided an experienced stage director like Paul Glaser is in charge.

Want to know more about this stage experiment? Here we go.
„Come on, Pip, you may kiss my hand.“ Photo: Stefan Kock

Eight-year-old Philip, nicknamed Pip, is growing up in a poor family. Orphaned at an early age, he is at the mercy of his quarrelsome older sister who is married to the good-natured blacksmith Joe Gargery. Joe loves the boy and makes up with his tenderness for Mrs. Joe’s tyranny. While visiting his family’s graves on the churchyard one day before Christmas, Pit encounters a convict named Magwitch who urges him to bring him food and a file. Otherwise he would kill the boy. In spite of Pip’s help, Magwitch and Compeyson, his partner in crime and a supposed gentleman who is now his embittered enemy, are soon caught by the police.

An invitation

One day Pip is requested to see Miss Havisham at Satis House. Many years ago that lady became gaga when jilted by her fiancé on her wedding day. Now she lives in her run-down residence with her adopted daughter Estella, still wearing her wedding dress. The old spinster never forgot what her former lover had done to her. Now she is seeking revenge by teaching Estella to torment men with her beauty. While Pip is beguiled by her and instantaneously falls in love with Estella, she treats him with utmost coldness making him feel that he, the poor boy from the smithy, does not belong to her class.

From rags to riches
„Look, my dear boy, all this is mine.“ Photo: Stefan Kock

Several years later a lawyer named Jaggers arrives from London and informs Pip that a person who wants to stay anonymous has left him a nice sum of money. Pip is sure that Miss Havisham is his benefactor who does not dissuade him of his notion. Once in London, Pip is taught to be a gentleman by Mr. Pocket and his son Herbert.
The wealth does not do any good to Pip. He becomes an intolerable snob who is ashamed of his humble birth and looks down on his stepfather Joe who cared for him so tenderly when he was a child.

Shocking news

When Magwitch comes illegally to England confessing that he let Pip the money to thank him for his help years ago, he is caught again by the police while he is trying with the aid of Pip and Herbert to flee on a boat to the Continent. During his flight he gets injured and dies in jail. Shortly before his death Pip informs Magwitch that he is Estella’s father, her mother being Mr. Jaggers’ housekeeper. Following Estella’s birth Jaggers arranged the infant’s adoption by the childless Miss Havishaw. At the same time another secret is unveiled: It was Compeyson who once jilted Miss Havishaw before leaving England for good.

Easy come, easy go

After the death of Magwitch Pip is penniless. He and his friend Herbert had been living beyond their means for many years. As a result of their extravagance they are now completely broke. They decide to go abroad and try their luck elsewhere.

Satis House on fire
„You are making me cry, Estella.“ Photo: Stefan Kock

Pip pays a last visit to Satis House. He learns that Estella, now widowed, was unhappily married to the reckless Bentley Drummle whom Pip once met in London and utterly disliked from the very first moment. Miss Havinshaw expresses her deep regret for having talked Estella into the marriage with that awful man. While talking she comes too near to the fire-place in her living-room so that her dress catches fire. A shocking scene with a blazing fire on the stage. Miss Havinshaw dies a few days later.
When Pip meets Estella after all these years he finds her softer and friendlier than in the past. They shake hands and separate without any hard feelings. Curtain.

Charles Dickens and his Work
„No use, Pip, trying to hide under the table.“ Photo: Stefan Kock

No doubt, Pip was Dickens’s alter ego. Like his hero he grew up in poverty and had to leave school at the age of twelve. His heavily indebted father was being incarcerated for years, and his family paid him regular visits in jail. Unlike Pip Charles was not so lucky to inherit a fortune. He had to work his way up without any help from others. He was what we nowadays call a self-made man. When he was given the chance to work as a journalist he developed his literary gift. Later he became one of Britain’s most famous authors writing one novel after the other. Just think of literary blockbusters such as “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “A Christmas Carol in Prose” and “A Tale of two Cities.” In spite of Dickens’s 19th century language, his books are still extremely good reads. The characters are vivid and the settings well written. Just have a look at the nightly scene on the graveyard that makes your blood freeze… Since his work appeared as serialized novels in magazines, a good many people, also from the less privileged classes, were given access to the world of literature. Dickens was a notorious moralist who never got tired of criticizing the false morals of the Victorian society. The great writer of immortal books died at the age of 58. You will find his grave in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey along with other literary geniuses.

The staff
„Don’t worry, you are safe on the boat.“ Photo: Stefan Kock

Seven “multitasking” thespians are at work. Each of them – except Pit (Theo Watt)- are to be seen in several roles. While Michelle Todd plays Miss Havisham, Hubble and Mr. Wemmick – altogether three parts – respect! Jonny Magnanti playing Joe Gargery slips in no time from a worker’s clothes into Magwitche’s rags. Dominic Charman is as convincing in the part of bitchy Mrs. Joe as in the role of the posh Herbert Pocket. What’s more, all of them also move the sparse furniture on the stage when the scene demands a couple of chairs or a sofa. During the works an unseen narrator ( Gordon Griffin) keeps the audience on track about the progress of the events. A brilliant idea.
Ten points out of ten for all those involved in this fantastic performance. Thank you all very much for the inspiring evening.

Final performance of “Great Expectations” on October 29, 2022.
Tickets under phone number: 040-227 70 89 or online under: www.englishtheatre.de

Next premiere: “Romance in D,” comedy by James Sherman, on November 10, 2022

Autor: Uta Buhr

Vizepräsidentin Die Auswärtige Presse e.V., freie Journalistin, Reise, Wellness, Kultur (Theater, Ausstellungen)

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