By Dr. Gary Colledge, guest blogger
[Ed. note: As many of our regular readers know, Dr. Gary Colledge is the author of God and Charles Dickens and consultant on the new play To Begin With. He has also been a good friend to this blog. We greatly appreciate his writing this guest post for us on the development and premiere of the play. --GRD]
Three years ago, my wife and I sat with producer Dennis Babcock in my home discussing the idea of turning Dickens’s The Life Of Our Lord into a one-man play. Dennis shared with us that he had been toying with the possibility of this project for almost 20 years, and through a series of rather extraordinary—maybe even providential?—events, learned that The Life of Our Lord had been at the center of my post-graduate studies. He contacted me for the first time initially by phone, visited me at my home shortly thereafter, and at that meeting asked if I might consider serving as a consultant for the production.
That is why, this past Friday evening, February 20, 2015, I sat with much delight and anticipation in the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis waiting for the curtain to rise on the premiere of To Begin With, Dennis’s theatrical production about the writing of Dickens’s The Life of Our Lord.
Gerald Charles Dickens, playing Dickens, looks very much the part of his inimitable great-great-grandfather and convinces us that he is, indeed, his great-great-grandfather right from the opening lines: “Disagreeable evening. Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God. When I say ‘Swinburne,’ I do not mean Captain Swinburne, the good and respected gentleman who lives next door. I refer to his son, the ill-tempered, foul-smelling spawn. The mad, firetopped Swinburne. Swinburne the younger. Who is twelve.”
Written and directed by the accomplished and brilliant Jeffrey Hatcher, the play, set at Winterbourne, Isle of Wight, is an imagining of how Dickens may have conceived of and began writing this harmony of the Gospels for his children. Young Algernon Swinburne is the imagined antagonist whose arrogant irreligion motivates Dickens to want to tell his children “something about the Lord Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him.”
Gerald Dickens is absolutely captivating as the 35-year-old Charles Dickens. If you have never seen Gerald perform, that is a treat in itself. And in this one-man play, he is able to bring to life and introduce us to his children, to Captain Swinburne and young Algernon, to donkeys and Pharisees, to priests and pastors and Wise Men, to Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas. Even a young Ellen Ternan makes an anonymous cameo in what Hatcher has called the Portsmouth Epiphany.
Gerald plays all these characters himself, of course, giving subtle nuances to each simply by his change of tone, his posture, and his gestures. His portrayal of Herod, albeit brief, is wonderful. His portrayal of the Pharisees and the “clever bunch” who desire to stone the woman taken in adultery seems spot-on to me. And his brief little portrayal of the Wise Men is laugh-out-loud funny.
On this particular Friday evening, in this particular Minneapolis theatre, the audience was treated to a unique play that asked them to think about Dickens in a way that most rarely think about him; they were treated to some very clever comedy and some rather poignant moments in Dickens’s life; and their knowledge of Dickens was playfully tested and enhanced. But perhaps more importantly they were entertained by a fantastically written play, acted with passion and reflection, and revealing a part of Dickens’s life and work with which few are familiar.
Whether or not one is a Dickens fan, this is a play well worth attending. It is entertaining. It is surprising. It is fun. It is provocative.