A Tale of Two Authors

Posted in Reviews, Theater by ameliadean on May 5, 2010

Together, they are responsible for writing some of the most popular tales to date. From The Adventures of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations to The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, the stories of Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Anderson have captivated people across continents and generations.

And yet these two authors had more in common than literary success. They were also friends. After meeting at an elite social gathering in 1847, British Dickens and Danish Anderson struck up an affectionate correspondence. Ten years later, Dickens invited Anderson to his family’s country home for what turned out to be an extended, eventually distressing visit. Famously, after Anderson departed, Dickens wrote on the guest room mirror: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!”

Playwright Sebastian Barry uses Anderson’s intrusion into the Dickens abode as the subject of his new play, Anderson’s English, now being performed at the Hampstead Theatre. However, in contrast to what one might expect, the relationship between the two writers does not take center stage.  Instead, Barry decides to focus on the many mini dramas unfolding before the oblivious, socially awkward, and English-challenged Anderson.  We witness the disintegration of the marriage between Dickens and his wife, Catherine, the disastrous meddling of Catherine’s well-intentioned sister, Georgie, the futile romance between Dickens’ son and the family’s feisty Irish maid, and the disapproving glare of Dickens’ daughter, Kate. Through it all, Dickens reigns supreme, cold, cruel, and intent on having his way. Anderson’s character provides the comic relief, stumbling over his words, committing social faux pas, and serving as an unsuspecting confidante.

While the actors’ performances were strong and the staging inventive, I was not moved by Barry’s play.  Admittedly, Niamh Cusack’s rendition of Dickens’ wife Catherine was outstanding. But even her lonely desperation was not able to draw me in. Instead of seriously exploring marital distress, parental control, and the self-indulgence of genius, Barry seems satisfied with an account of the way things might have been. The product is a web of possibilities rather than anything of serious substance or insight.

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