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The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Simon Callow explores
The Mystery of Charles Dickens
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Americans spending Christmas in England are often surprised that the seasonal celebration is not what they expect. Rarely, for instance, is goose on the bill of fare; rather, turkey prevails. The most Victorian aspect of the holiday in recent years has been Simon Callow's television appearances as Charles Dickens. This mercurial character actor (Four Weddings and a Funeral, A Room With a View, etc.) gets himself up as the Victorian novelist and reads to a group of extras in period dress, indulging himself in long passages from the author's novels and short stories and playing all of the bigger-than-life characters, just as Dickens did when he toured.

Now, also as Dickens did, Callow has come to America. He calls the presentation The Mystery of Charles Dickens and insists that it's a play. Perhaps it is, if an extremely broad definition of that word is used. A more accurate description of what Callow is doing, and extremely well, is giving a lecture with substantiating texts and the support of visual aids. For the most part, he provides detailed biographical information on Dickens's relatively short and surprisingly unhappy life. Sometimes Callow is himself and sometimes he's the strutting Dickens, narrating his experiences and declaiming his thoughts.

The visual aids employed are Callow's furrowed face with its Dickens-like beard, his barrel-chested torso, and his limber limbs. Just as Dickens goaded characters into astonishing presence with a couple of deft sentences, Callow gives them astonishing stage presence with a few deft gestures. A bend of his body, a twitch of his fingers, a shift of his voice and he's Mr. Micawber, expounding on happiness and misery in David Copperfield. Or he's Miss Havisham, commanding Pip's attention in Great Expectations. Or he's Oliver Twist, in tears at leaving his school chums behind. According to promotional materials for the show, he's a total of 50 Dickens personages, each of them highly individuated and fully animated.

There is no question of Callow's abilities; as an actor, he is far from callow. Explaining the elations and depressions that came to Dickens throughout his renowned career, he takes full charge of the stage. In regalia including a shiny ivory waistcoat, performing on an economical but also sumptuous unit set by Christopher Woods, he's authoritative throughout, whether he's expounding from a 19th-century swivel chair or rising to roam the stage--sometimes restlessly, sometimes calmly--under Nick Richings ever-shifting lights. When Callow runs quickly through a sequence of Dickens's most famous figures spouting their most famous lines, he's compelling. When, with grim visage and swinging arms, he acts Bill Sikes's harrowing murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist, he is frighteningly effective (as, apparently, was Dickens when he included the same grisly excerpt in the exhausting 1870 reading tour that seemed to do him in).

The service that Callow performs is certainly educational; he reminds us how exhaustively devoted Dickens remained, throughout his writings, to the betterment of the human condition. Peter Ackroyd's script emphasizes Dickens's influence on social reform, as when inadequate boys' schools across England were closed in response to Wackford Squeers's wacky pedagogy in Nicholas Nickleby. Much of Dickens's dedication to improving matters for children, Callow and Ackroyd point out, was a result of his own difficult early years as the son of a financial ne'er-do-well. (At age 10, Dickens had to work in a shoe-polish factory while his parents and siblings were living in a debtors' prison). Callow also covers Dickens's marriage to Catherine Hogarth and his subsequent forsaking of her to carry on a romance with Ellen Ternan, an actress 28 years his junior.

Curiously and disappointingly, however, Callow's selections from Dickens, while abundant, are for the most part brief. This "play," forthrightly directed by Patrick Garland, is different from Callow's televised Dickens forays and less enthralling. Callow lifts segments from The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, the autobiographical David Copperfield, Martin Chuzzlewit, and A Tale of Two Cities...but none of it is heavy lifting.

Aside from the Bill-Nancy chunk of terror, Callow doesn't vivify whole scenes. For that reason, the varied moods and emotions evoked by Dickens in his now-athletic, now-lyrical prose are generally missing. Callow never brings a lengthy scene to joyful, tearful, thrilling life with the flourishes of his television treatments. Consequently, The Mystery of Charles Dickens isn't the wallow in Dickens that might have been hoped for. The biggest mystery here is why the material was treated in this fashion.

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