A world on the edge of change, the toppling of the elite, blood, violence and the cynical suffering of the innocent… A Tale of Two Cities is either a brilliant choice in the wake of the US election or a terrifying one. This is very much history in the mode of Wolf Hall rather than Downton Abbey. Which is fitting, as playwright Mike Poulton was responsible for bringing Hilary Mantel’s heavyweight work to the RSC stage in 2014.
As a self-confessed disliker of Dickens in print, I am happy to concede that his plots and ideas more often than not make for stunningly gorgeous adaptations in TV and film. This happily proves the case with Touring Consortium Theatre Company new adaptation; and then some.
A Tale of… is one of Dickens’s earlier novels and is perhaps less embedded in the British consciousness than later works such as Oliver Twist or Great Expectations. It tells the story of a young man, Charles Darnay, who revokes his aristocratic inheritance and flees to England in the wake of the French revolution. But obligation and duty call him back to the Republic – risking not only his own life but that of his newly acquired family.
The atmosphere created on stage is spellbinding, for which Mike Britton’s lighting and set design must take much of the credit, helped in no small part by Rachel Portman‘s score. We see hints and glimpses of mob chaos – a horse statue is tantalisingly almost pulled down at the close of Act 1 – but rarely full blooded violence. The colours shift from genteel powder blue to the golden cream of the ancien régime to practical grey in a revolutionary courtroom. The set dressing walks a tricky balance – it allows the whole play to feel cinematic in scope, whilst never losing the intimacy that only theatre can excel at.
The cast execute their roles with grace, subtlety and wit. Christopher Hunter as the Marquis St. Evrémonde is particularly enjoyable in his evil treatment of those beneath him socially; so much so that it’s almost a shame that he leaves the action early. But no-one else quite reaches the heights of Joseph Timms as the wretched Sidney Carton. Racked by a self loathing so powerful you can almost smell it, he imbues his character – awkward, conflicted, buried beneath his own unhappiness – with intense passion and an eventual nobility of spirit. Timms lights up the stage with dark charisma, particularly towards the end of the second act.