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Mike Poulton - A Tale of Two Cities

It has been the best of times recently for Mike Poulton, whose stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities, opens in Edinburgh tonight as part of the current tour of a production originally seen in 2014 at the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton. Directed by current Royal and Derngate boss James Dacre, Poulton's adaptation of Dickens' French Revolution set saga announced Dacre's tenure with an epic flourish honed over two decades of working on classic texts by the likes of Chekhov and Schiller, and which have been seen in productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company and on Broadway.

While more recently Poulton has adapted Hilary Mantel's novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies for the RSC as well as a version of the York Mysteries, Dickens' tale of life during wartime is clearly a labour of love.

“I'd always wanted to do A Tale of Two Cities,” he says. “It was a favourite novel, and Dickens being a man of the theatre, you can see he's written it almost as a piece of drama. The dialogue is so good,and while there aren't stage directions, each scene has a beginning, a middle and an end. Dickens really does guide you through it.”

For this touring version, Poulton has rewritten parts, while the cast has been expanded to accommodate the changes.

“Not all novels hold up to being adapted for the stage,” Poulton points out. “It's not simply a case of putting a novel on its feet. You have to find the drama within it. It's like I said to Hilary Mantel when I was adapting Wolf Hall, it's like taking a Rolls Royce to pieces and rebuilding it as a helicopter.”

One of the earliest stagings of A Tale of Two Cities was The Only Way, a play by Frederick Longbridge and Freeman Wills at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. While the play ran for several years on the West End and was made into a film in 1927 by Herbert Wilcox, Poulton describes it as “unperformable today. I looked at it, and it was a huge success, but it's far too sentimental.”

Stage adaptations of Dickens' work have veered between the intimacy of the solo approach favoured by actor Simon Callow, to the epic, which David Edgar's recently revived two-part version of Nicholas Nickleby, first produced by the RSC in the mid 1980s, has come to define. Poulton's approach falls somewhere between the two.

“I have a reputation for taking big, unwieldy novels and adapting them for two hours onstage,” says Poulton. “You have to identify a through line, especially with something like A Tale of Two Cities, and then leave the rest to the actors. David did Nicholas Nickleby over two parts, which allowed him to go into detail in a way that we couldn't. Nicholas Nickleby recently had a very successful outing at Chichester, and it was really very good, but to say you have to spend two nights in the theatre is a bit of an ask. I think with A Tale of Two Cities, we've found a brisk way of doing the play that has the audience on the edge of their seats.”

Poulton's take on Tale of Two Cities follows a recent staging of a hitherto unperformed version of the play written by a young Terence Rattigan with acting giant John Gielgud. Poulton didn't see the production, performed by a small cast with some contemporary flourishes, though he is aware that “It's very different to ours. It's much closer to the Dirk Bogarde film of it made in the 1950s and The Only Way, in that it's needlessly sentimental, and a lot of questions are begged. Rattigan was a very young writer at the time, and I suspect a lot of it was largely down to Gielgud, who I think was really interested in writing a part for himself.”

Rattigan's version of Dickens' story is of particular interest to Poulton, however, as his original play, Kenny Morgan, which was seen at the Arcola Theatre in London, looked at the real life background that influenced Rattigan's play, The Deep Blue Sea.

“Kenny Morgan was Rattigan's lover,” says Poulton, “who committed suicide. Rattigan's agent is my agent, who as part of the centenary celebrations of Rattigan asked me to look at some of his lesser known plays, and also gave me lots of biographies of him. Through them I discovered that Kenny Morgan committed suicide just as Rattigan was opening one of his unsuccessful plays in Liverpool.

“When he was told what had happened, Rattigan stood at the window in the Adelphi Hotel and didn't move, then after twenty minutes announced that he had the plot of his next play. That was how Rattigan dealt with all of his problems. He put them in his plays, so Kenny Morgan became Hester Collyer and he wrote The Deep Blue Sea.”

Prior to his career as a playwright and adaptor, Poulton was managing editor of Oxford University Press. As a good friend of theatre director Terry Hands, who had moved to the Royal Shakespeare Company as a junior director running the company's touring group, Theatreground, after founding Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, Poulton was exposed to stagings of classic stories first hand. As Hands became the RSC's joint artistic director with Trevor Nunn, Poulton's interest increased.

“I'd got to the point where I'd done publishing,” he says, “and I was very critical of theatrical adaptations. Eventually Duncan Weldon and Derek Jacobi asked me to do something with them at Chichester Festival Theatre, which they were running at the time, and I ended up doing Uncle Vanya with Derek Jacobi and Turgenev's Fortune's Fool with Alan Bates.

Both shows transferred to Broadway, with Poulton being nominated for a Tony award for Fortune's Fool. A new production, starring Iain Glen, opened in the West End in 2013.

Poulton is currently hard at work at two new and as yet un-named projects for the RSC that will be announced by the company's current artistic director Gregory Doran in January 2017.

“I would never accept a commission for the sake of it,” Poulton says. “I would only ever do something that I'm burning to do.”

In this respect, Poulton's love and respect for classic texts remains undimmed.

“If you look at a Dickens novel,” he says, “or a Shakespeare or a Schiller play, the reasons they have become classics is because they speak to us with the same sense of relevance now as they did when they were written. Dickens and Shakespeare's works are all about surviving, and making the most of what we're given. All of their works, and Dickens especially, are full of characters who feel so real that you could go outside and meet them on the street. I get annoyed with Shakespeare directors who set the plays in modern day gangland or something like that. No, no, no. Let the characters speak for themselves. You don't need anything else, because everything's already there. Great plays are classics because they tell the truth.”

A Tale of Two Cities, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight-November 12.

The Herald, November 8th 2016



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