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Jo Clifford and Jemima Levick - Great Expectations

Waking up on Friday May 8 was strange experience for Jemima Levick and the cast of her production of Great Expectations, which opens this week at Dundee Rep. It was the morning after the General Election, and slowly but surely it began to sink in that, while Scotland had voted for an almost Tory free zone, England had given what seemed to many to be one of the cruellest Westminster governments in modern times an increased majority that ended the need for any kind of coalition to prop up their austerity-driven powerbase.

“It was the weirdest day,” says Levick. “and suddenly it felt like there were these two very different places that existed, and that seemed to reflect what Jo Clifford's version of the play is about, and what Charles Dickens' novel is about.”

Great Expectations charts the travails of Pip, an orphan who, after encountering an escaped convict at his dead parents graveside, embarks on an adventure of poverty, riches and thwarted love involving an array of colourful characters led by wealthy spinster Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella.

“It's about capitalism, and wanting to be something you're not,” Levick explains on a break from rehearsals. “The characters are all worried about their status and being something else than what they are. Pip's story is one of finding his place in the world. It's about greediness, guilt and this desire to aspire to be something greater.

“The first half of the book is set in Kent, where it's very peaceful and people are very satisfied with their lives. Then it moves to London, which is all about wealth and property, and the day after the election it felt like England was aspiring to be Tory. There's something about Pip's story, which is about seeing someone making something of themselves, so it's a rags to riches story in that way, but what I think a lot of people forget is that he doesn't really benefit from that.

“Then there's Miss Havisham, who's become this weird gay icon and I don't quite know why, but there's that image of a woman skulking around the house dressed as a bride, and who's been totally destroyed by love, and sometimes people don't even connect the two stories.”

Clifford's stage version of Dickens' novel has had quite a history, which has seen it played in small-scale schools venues in Glasgow communities before travelling the world, then more recently in a scaled-up version on the West End in London.

Clifford first wrote it for theatre in education company TAG in association with choreographer Gregory Nash in 1988. Directed by Ian Brown, the first production featured a young Alan Cumming as Pip, and the show went on to win that year's Spirit of Mayfest Award.

“I'd done a version of Romeo and Juliet for Ian Brown who was running TAG,” Clifford explains, “and we wanted to do another project. The idea was to do a show which combined dance and words, which was probably quite revolutionary at the time, and the only way we could get bookings from venues was to attach it to a well-known novel. The whole thing had to be done in two hours, and my original plan was that I wasn't going to dramatise the whole novel, but I was going to do a show based mainly on Miss Havisham. Then we had a week-long workshop, and we read the novel, and I knew then that we had to dramatise the whole thing.”

Clifford wrote the play in five weeks, and a tour of Scotland followed.

“It was incredibly successful,” Clifford remembers. “There was something about the pressure I was under when I was doing it that made it really pared down, and when Ian became artistic director of the Traverse he decided to do it again as a Traverse production. There was a lot of interest from the British Council, and it went on to become one of the first big international British Council tours.”

The production toured around India and Sri Lanka, and was the last British show to play in Iraq prior to the first Gulf War.

“The story has so much to tell us,” says Clifford, “especially living in these times of grotesque inequality and injustice. I remember being in Delhi and looking around at all this chaos and thinking, I bet this was what London was like in Dickens' time.”

By the time Clifford's take on Great Expectations was scaled up for a production at Pitlochry Festival Theatre it had changed again, with Miss Havisham coming more to the fore.

“Miss Havisham was originally quite a small part,” says Clifford. “I wrote it for a young dancer who'd never spoken onstage before, but in Pitlochry Edith MacArthur was going to be playing her, so I expanded the role.”

The play was later seen again at Perth Theatre in a production directed by Graham McLaren, who eventually directed it on a commercial tour and in the West End, with Paula Wilcox playing Miss Havisham.

“I expanded it again and had more characters in it,” says Clifford. “I never expected the play to have the amazing life that it has, but part of the tradition of the play has been to change it to fit the needs of the company. It's amazing that Jemima has gone back to the original script, so it's gone full circle.”

There have been a host of other dramatisations of Dickens' story. These include a 1939 stage version featuring Alec Guinness, a 1975 stage musical starring John Mills, a version in 1995 by Hugh Leonard for the Gate in Dublin, and a 2005 adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Cheek by Jowl founders Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod.

Levick chose Clifford's version over all of these, however, because “There's something really pure about Jo's version that gets to the essence of the story, which we've kind of set in a nineteenth century salon. There's some beautiful lines in it, and every one of those characters are flawed and broken and bent out of shape in some way. Everything that's said is so specific, and although Pip does a lot of blaming other people throughout his journey, it's really up to the audience to decide what they think of it all. It's about revenge, it's about love and it's about coming of age, but through all of that, it's about how you're responsible for your own actions, and that ultimately you are the engineer of your own destiny.”

Great Expectations, Dundee Rep, June 4-20.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

The Herald, June 2nd 2015

ends

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