Epic theatre is that kind of sporadic event that allows for the broad canvas, the big themes and the multiplicity of character and plot development and comes along only once in a great while. When done well it is always a joy and a wonder to behold. It renews the art form and teaches us how the theatre occupies a unique place within the performing arts and why - in spite of the proliferation of new information technologies, DVDs, the advances of filmmaking, etc. - it just refuses to give way.
Tony Kushner's gay phantasmagoric play, Angels in America, arguably the most important American play of the twentieth century, is a piece of theatre art that moves along with big thematic elements involving the politics of McCarthyism, the death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the advent of gay liberation and the onslaught of HIV/AIDS. Like Nicholas Nickleby, it unfolds in two parts - The Millenium Approaches and Perestroika - and requires an investment of time on the part of the theatre goer of two evenings or one afternoon and one evening (when run concurrently) in order to take it all in. It is a marathon run of the emotions for both the cast and the audience. Robert Schenkkan's Kentucky Cycle that traces the working class lives of Kentucky coal miners through the eyes of early socialist and anarchist leaders like Mother Jones and Emma Goldman is another example of big theme Americana that probes the conscience and jostles the soul. Tom Stoppard's nine hour trilogy discourse on the Russian intelligentsia of the mid-19th century, The Coast of Utopia, is perhaps less successful dramatically but still compelling as a project that ultimately chews off more than it can bite.
When Nicholas Nickleby was birthed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980 and subsequently came to New York a few years later it was acclaimed for two reasons - for the breadth of its theatricality and striking contemporary resonance of the Dickensian themes of social injustice as well as the astounding price of the $100 dollar ticket. As the homeless were being vacated from central Manhattan, theatre goers were transporting themselves back to the 19th century in the best traditions of melodrama that contained both tragedy and comedy - evil doers who met their just ends and good folks who finally found their way and lived happily ever after.
Flash forward twenty eight years and times have changed as much as they have stayed the same. There is still a need to hear the lamentations and exaltations of our hero, Nicholas, here played by Daniel Weyman. Although we still have the pensive brooding and righteous indignation necessary for the role, there is something lacking in Weyman's performance, a kind of pent-up emotional constipation that never really allows him to go the full circle with his Nicholas which needs that liberated, emancipatory finish to fully round out the role. Granted Roger Rees is indelibly imprinted here as the original Nicholas so the barre is set high, but when running the marathon you either get across the finish and beat the previous record or you don't. Weyman doesn't quite make it but he sure gives a lot in the effort.
Special kudos must go to David Yellen as Ralph Nickleby, the Uncle Scrooge of the piece, who anchors the play and in the end takes more of our focus and attention than does Nicholas. Richard Bremmer plays his inebriate clerk, Newman Noggs, to hand wringing and knuckle crunching perfection while the ensemble of 27 actors generally play multiple roles which is as much fun for the audience as it is for the actors.
Among the stand out performances here are Zoe Waites as the mate seeking Fanny Squeers (she also doubles as the dˇclassˇ Miss Snevellicci and the compassionate Madeline Bray). And so it goes with David Dawson as the sympathetic workhouse runaway, Smite, Bob Barrett as the Yorkshire tenant farmer, John Browdie, and the fawning Lord Verisopht and the stellar Hannah Yelland who plays Kate Nickleby, the ever faithful and determined sister to Nicholas.
This run in Toronto will be the company's only touch down in North America so if you are anywhere within traveling distance, don't miss this great theatrical event.