Picture this. A dimly lit street, leading to a towering Victorian building. Your eyes follow the red bricks ascending to an ash coloured bell tower. And as they climb back down, are met by a dark green double door. You enter, pass through arched corridors, and arrive in a space with book shelves as far as the eyes can see. And from the shelves emerge Charles Dickens’ famous Great Expectations characters, ready to take you on a journey.
“This is a version which is light on its feet but packs a lot in! So yes – threatening convicts, murky marshes, busy London streets and ghostly brides all feature,” says Attic Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Louise Hill. “But we’ve also found a visual language which works within our particular library setting and makes the building itself come to life as the story is told.”
Library by day, theatre by night. Merton Arts Space in Wimbledon Library will host Dickens’ epic tale of romance, ruthless ambition, and revenge as its first theatrical performance. What is so intriguing about this venture is the creative use of space, and the somewhat reimaging of site-specific work. Attic Theatre Company had to find ways to bring a piece of theatre to a new environment, whilst retaining the building’s own element. After being approached by the libraries team, the company decided to make full use of the unique Victorian building, and the library space that lends itself so magically to Dickens’ novel. “The idea of staging an adaptation of a classic novel among the bookshelves really grew from there”, says Hill. “There’s something exciting about making noise in a library after hours – and something very fun and playful about telling stories among the bookstacks!” But the level of marriage between the theatrical piece and its environment has been ironically left to our imagination. “You’ll have to come and see the show to find out how!” she adds. Perfect publicity.
“When Pip, the blacksmith’s boy, climbs out of the pantry window one Christmas morning, he little dreams of the fortune which awaits him. Life as a London gentleman leads him to forsake his old life and friends. But all is not as it seems, and when his past returns to haunt him, will Pip learn the value of knowing who he truly is?”
This Great Expectations adaptation by Artistic Director of the New Vic Theatre, Theresa Heskins, celebrates “the act of imagination”. The two artistic directors’ collaboration sees the result of a great novel being condensed into under two hours of playing time; yet keeps all the excitement of one of Dickens’ greatest plots.
“I think Dickens’ novel and Theresa’s adaptation of it both celebrate the act of imagining,” says Hill. “Reading a good book involves a flight of imagination – and with Dickens’ vivid story-telling especially, you can really see the characters in your mind’s eye, and almost feel and smell Victorian London between the pages. Theatre takes that one step further – in that it requires a collective act of imagination between all of us in the room; actors and audience alike. I’d love the audience to feel that everyone in the room has taken an imaginative journey together, and to come out of the building with a renewed sense of where our own imaginations can take us.”
There’s a lot being left to our imaginations, but we are however afforded the knowledge of the masterminds behind the show’s production design. Anna Kezia Williams and Ziyue Gong are final year Theatre Design students who have taken this task head-on; with professional theatre designer Alex Marker, of Finborough Theatre, mentoring them on their journey. “We’re really thrilled to be working with two hugely talented final year students from Wimbledon College of Art,” Hill says. “Anna and Ziyue have designed both set and costume for the production – no mean feat with 8 actors playing over 50 characters! And it marks their first full production of their graduating year. The show gives them the chance to see their designs come to life, and to work with a professional production team as they begin their careers.”
This company has a strong ethos of artistic development and support, and aims to launch new people into the arts industry as often as possible. “We also have several recent drama school graduates among our cast,” Hill continues. “We’re hoping that their involvement – as well as the story of young Pip’s journey from childhood to adulthood – will encourage a new generation of readers and theatre-goers to discover what’s on offer at their new local arts space.”
Attic Theatre Company’s adaptation of Great Expectations is more than just a theatrical piece. It promises to be an immersive experience across several mediums. Actor Jason Flemyng, who also played Joe Gargery in the recent film adaptation of Great Expectations, will be giving a free reading from the novel on Wednesday 7 December before the performance. “Part of the aim of the project is to encourage people to read the book as well as see the show,” says Hill. “We’re running a Great Expectations book club alongside the production, with an online trail for readers on our website, so we’re hoping Jason’s reading will provide another incentive to pick up the novel.”
Dive into Attic Theatre Company’s imaginative world at Merton Arts Space in Wimbledon Library from 30 November to 18 December.
This article is created in partnership with Attic Theatre Company.