Remembering Roger Rees, and his Nicholas Nickleby

“Is this a theatre?” whispered Smike, in amazement; “I thought it was a blaze of light and finery.”

“Why, so it is,” replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; “but not by day, Smike—not by day.”

 ~Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

nicholas posterIt begins so innocuously with those quirky, slightly dated-sounding notes (now forever beloved) of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1981 filmed stage production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Who knew that this brainchild of Trevor Nunn, in collaboration with John Caird and adapted for the stage by David Edgar, born of necessity rather than superfluity, would be such a life-changing testament to the power of theatre and the power of Dickens, even forty years after its live production? Decades and distances later, it remains the ultimate Dickensian romp, hilarious and heartbreaking. If there is one single piece of recorded material ~ e.g. music, movies, etc ~ that I could take with me to the proverbial desert island, it would be this production.

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Smike and Nicholas

The legendary, 8 ½ hour stage marvel was conceived not during a time of financial excess for the RSC, but during a time of straitened means; in fact, Leon Rubin’s fascinating The Nicholas Nickleby Story which relates the history of this undertaking, writes that by “August 1979, the RSC was in grave financial trouble.” Roger Rees mentions in an interview much later that the Arts Council was going to be cutting the funding for the RSC “in half.” But, according to Rubin, “Trevor’s philosophy was that the best form of defense is attack, and he believed that what he needed to find was a single piece of work that would provide a challenging acting opportunity for the entire company…He decided on an adaptation of a Dickens novel, that would harness in one work all the RSC’s vast resources and demonstrate what that company could really achieve.” There were forty-three actors in the company at that time, and they were already in the midst of seven Shakespeare plays and thirteen others simultaneously; yet Trevor was looking for that one piece that could display it all. Many of the Inimitable’s works were read and considered; ultimately, Nickleby won the day as “the best vehicle for their particular range of talents.”

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The Mantalinis

And Nicholas Nickleby really did have it all: the heartrending emotional center of the novel in Smike (David Threlfall, a performance for the ages); the cross-section of the various social classes and Dickens’ satire of them (several examples brilliantly embodied in the chameleon Suzanne Bertish, and the marvelous Bob Peck, may he rest in peace); the potential for suspenseful drama in everything from Dotheboys Hall (Alun Armstrong, Ian McNeice, Lila Kaye, Suzanne Bertish!) to the Brays; the adorable comicality and pathos of Newman Noggs (Edward Petherbridge, I love you!); the scenery-chewing Crummles and Mantalinis (John McEnery, may you rest in peace my “seraphim,” my “life and soul,” my “essential juice of pine-apple,” you’re a demd genius!) and the most hilarious piece of comic staging in the Crummles’ production of Romeo and Juliet ~ one of the most brilliant divergences from the novel and possibly the single funniest sequence I have seen in my life, on stage or screen. (Alun Armstrong as the drunken Prince…that’s all I’ll say!) And yet, in quintessentially Dickensian fashion, David Edgar manages to echo a touching segment from this farce to the most heartbreakingly poignant effect later in the play ~ an echo which is, again, a perfectly-conceived divergence from the novel. But no spoilers here…

roger collageAnd, of course, Roger, our beloved Nicholas, who had to carry (sometimes literally) the drama.

It was a quixotic feat, this risk of trusting the audience to journey with the company for one of the most unlikely (and, probably, lengthy) of theater experiences imaginable. They pulled out all the stops, as the actors themselves created the sounds of wind and birdsong and, with little help from props, managed to convey every atmosphere from gloomy Yorkshire to the sounds of the sea at Portsmouth, to the chaos and energy of London. The production was split into two parts, the first part of four hours was sometimes performed during the day, and the audience would return in the evening for the final over-four hours after a long interval; sometimes the first part was performed on one day and the second part was performed the following.

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Newman Noggs

The play opens with a stage full of actors performing a dramatic “reading” of an amended version of the novel’s opening ~ which, as Chapter One announces in its title, “Introduces all of the Rest.” We hear of the the older generation of Nicklebys: the brothers who have fared very differently with their inheritances from their father, Godfrey Nickleby. The younger brother, who is the father of the Nicholas Nickleby we come to know and love, becomes financially ruined (while his older brother prospers) and dies a too-early death. Then, as the prologue concludes, the cast suddenly swings into vibrant action as they relate the beginning of sorrow and adventure for the surviving family of the younger brother ~ his widow and her son and daughter, Nicholas and Kate ~ as they leave their idyllic farm in Devonshire for the chaotic journey to London in hopes of finding aid from their uncle, the jaded, Scrooge-like Ralph Nickleby (John Woodvine).

From there, we follow the dual adventures of Nicholas (and later, Smike) from Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, to the delightful mess of the Crummles theatrical company, and back to London; while Kate battles her own dragons in a town filled with rich, lecherous scoundrels and jealous, knagging Miss Knags. (Though how on earth does she keep a straight face around John McEnery as Mr. Mantalini?)

Ultimately, this joyous Bildungsroman is love letter to the theatre itself, to friendship and family, and to the ideal of taking a hand in lifting up those who are suffering; the willingness to bring others into our family and our hearts, even if we suspect it will bring heartbreak and loss. A love letter to the ideal that love always triumphs, and that generosity of heart is always worth the cost.

roger rees 1Roger Rees, a convert to Judaism, was born the son of a shop clerk and a police officer on May 5th, 1944, in Aberystwyth, Wales. (Of course he’d be a Welshman, with that gorgeous voice!) He is perhaps best known for his roles in the TV series Cheers or The West Wing. He was an accomplished actor, stage director, and playwright. Roger was nearly 40 when he took on the legendary role of the 19-year old Nicholas, and with an energy that most 19-year-olds might well envy. We believe him at every moment; he captures our hearts with his indomitably brave, yet vulnerable, goodness and sincerity. He makes us laugh, charms us, and breaks our hearts.

When it opened in 1980, Nickleby took some time to find its footing; critics clearly didn’t know what the Dickens to make of it, with all its muffin-tossing antics, its United Metropolitan Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company speeches, its random characters. But it finally hit its stride after Bernard Levin’s tide-turning review in The Times, and it’s worth quoting a lengthy passage here:

Some of the critical comment that has greeted the production makes one despair not just of criticism but of the human race…The response has exhibited that most dreadful of all the vices anglaise, the terror of being thought enthusiastic; most of the reviewers have spent their time carefully balancing praise for one detail against regret for another…

There is only one way to behave at the Aldwych; to surrender completely to the truth, which is that not for many years has London’s theatre seen anything so richly joyous, so immoderately rife with pleasure, drama, colour and entertainment, so life-enhancing, yea-saying and fecund, so—in one word which embraces all these and more—so Dickensian…It is a celebration of love and justice that is true to the spirit of Dickens’ belief that those are the fulcrums on which the universe is moved, and the consequence is that we come out not merely delighted but strengthened, not just entertained but uplifted, not only affected but changed.

Nicholas Nickleby won Roger both a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony; the recorded version won him an Emmy nomination.

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Rees as Owens in The Prestige

At every age, Roger surely had one of the most memorable and beautiful faces onscreen. A little aside: the first time I saw him, before I knew his name, was later in his life in the role of the rather mysterious middleman, Owens, in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. I was struck by that face, and, unaccountably, I recognized him. I had seen a photograph ~ yes, only a photograph ~ of a younger Roger as Nickleby some time before, when I had been researching other (mostly far older) stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels. What a revelation when I finally realized that one could see the RSC production still!

roger rees 2On July 10th 2015, I was utterly heartbroken to hear that my beloved Roger had died of cancer. (I read later that he’d been slated to star in an RSC production of Don Quixote which was supposed to happen in 2016, a year after his death…break my heart yet again.) Now, every year on July 10th ~ I am posting this a day early ~ I’ve been recalling Roger Rees’ life and work gratitude, even though I know only a fraction of both. For this year’s celebration of his memory, I’ve ordered a memoir about Roger, written by his longtime partner of 33 years ~ whom he married in 2011 ~ Rick Elice, and I’m hugely looking forward to it. I am also eager to get to know more of his other works ~ and, of course, to watch 2015-07-11 06.27.48Nicholas Nickleby yet again, which, as of the time of this writing, can still be found on YouTube or on DVD. And I will be eternally grateful to whomever had the foresight to record it for the ages.

His was a face, a voice, and a luminous talent that one never forgets. And though I won’t give it away, never can one forget the final tableau of this production once one has seen it, with Roger front and center and the chorus of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen echoing across the stage. It just may change your life.

We will never forget you, Roger. And to quote Dickens’ novel itself, “If our affections be tried, our affections are our consolation and comfort; and memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better.” Rest in peace, sweet prince of the stage.

Fulfilling Little Nell’s Wish During Quarantine

Our state, Oregon, went into full lockdown in the middle of March this year, and has been in the gradual reopening process over the past months. As I’m among those who was never able to work remotely, working as I do with superheroic adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (or, different-abilities!) in a group home setting, I’ve not been able to focus as much time and energy on writing and on research as I’d like. However, I have been delving into a big Dickens readathon ~ or, perhaps more appropriately, re-readathon.

I’ve recently started the renowned Dickens biography by Michael Slater, having wanted to read it for a long time, only halted by my intense attachment to the Peter Ackroyd biography. I’ve also been rereading ~ or relistening to audiobooks of ~ his novels. One of those has been The Old Curiosity Shop, which I hadn’t read in years. I love the atmosphere, although it’s never been among my top favorites; however, during one of my walks with my brother, I was very much struck again by how applicable Dickens is, even to seemingly disconnected parts of life.

My brother, looking at the vista from one of the cemetery trails

One of our favorite places to walk is the picturesque, historic little town of Jacksonville, Oregon, about 30 minutes away from Ashland, and home to a number just shy of 3,000 residents, but with, at least in pre-Covid days, a relatively hopping little tourist economy, between its old-West downtown flavor and historic homes, surrounding woods and trails, the supposedly-haunted Jacksonville Inn, and the renowned Britt Festival in the summer.

The historic Jacksonville Cemetery is a beautiful place for a walk ~ at least, when it isn’t too hot, because it tends to have spots of intense sun, and a few too many inclines for some of us in the heat. We’ve walked there often over the years, but our walk only a couple of weeks into the strict lockdown last March was particularly memorable.

Although I didn’t take pictures to speak of at the time ~ those in this post were primarily taken since ~ I recall in those first weeks of total quarantine, when we could only go out for essential needs, or to walk, for example, that I was inspired by the quiet, social-distanced, but active presence of people at the cemetery…walking, visiting the graves of loved ones, or simply sitting under the shade of trees to read and nap. I don’t recall having seen so many people there before, although there were no gatherings, or anything else that went against the lockdown regulations. If there is one thing that, just perhaps, we might see more of in a time of shutdown and pandemic, is a beautiful sort of connection to the earth, to family, and to those who have gone before us.

I kept thinking of Little Nell’s lament, when beautifying the little churchyard late in the novel, of the many graves that go unvisited, as though forgotten. She finally opens up about her thoughts to the kind schoolmaster:

“I rather grieve–I do rather grieve to think,” said the child, bursting into tears, “that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten.”

“And do you think,” said the schoolmaster, marking the glance she had thrown around, “that an unvisited grave, a withered tree, a faded flower or two, are tokens of forgetfulness or cold neglect? Do you think there are no deeds, far away from here, in which these dead may be best remembered? Nell, Nell, there may be people busy in the world, at this instant, in whose good actions and good thoughts these very graves–neglected as they look to us–are the chief instruments.”

“Tell me no more,” said the child quickly. “Tell me no more. I feel, I know it. How could I be unmindful of it, when I thought of you?”

“There is nothing,” cried her friend, “no, nothing innocent or good, that dies, and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith, or none. An infant, a prattling child, dying in its cradle, will live again in the better thoughts of those who loved it, and will play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world, though its body be burnt to ashes or drowned in the deepest sea. There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here. Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves!”

~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter 54

So, of course, the schoolmaster is right ~ it is our deeds, and our lives, by which we best remember those who have gone before. Who knows what hidden sparks of life, what dreams and moments of even heroic virtue, might have been inspired by one who died long ago? But still, I understand little Nell’s lament, and it is the peculiar sadness of the cemetery: not so much that it is a place to house the dead, but the broader fear that they are forgotten by the living. We know this isn’t so, but we are connected inextricably to the tangible. Fresh flowers left at a grave site; grass freshly mown and earth recently weeded; little pebbles left like secret messages at a headstone.

One might see it as “morbid,” perhaps, to keep part of one’s focus on the memory of the deceased; but I think there are few things that more awaken us to the living world around us, than the memory of those who are still so alive to us in a more profound way, although not physically present to our senses.

Perhaps for many of the visitors, like my brother and me, many were just in the cemetery for a beautiful walk, or somewhere to read with a vista of the surrounding town and hills, and not specifically to visit the grave of a loved one. But one can’t help but remember one’s own loved ones in such a setting, and one’s connection to the earth. Was it just my imagination, or had the quiet cemetery never seemed so full of life, and active memory, as it had during those early days of quarantine? I hope that those goods that have come from this time of universal lockdown are not too soon forgotten.