Who's the least interesting character in Oliver Twist? Oliver himself, of course. Fagin, Artful Dodger, even Bill Sike's dog Bull's-eye have more personality than that wimpy orphan. Anyone who walks out of the film Oliver singing "Where is love?" instead of "You've got to pick a pocket or two" is an idiot.
Unfortunately, the same is true of Great Expectations. Everyone is more interesting than Pip and damned if he isn't the central character. Lee Osorio gets the most stage time as Pip, reminding us once again why all the major actors in every film of Great Expectations played every role but Pip (except Ethan Hawke who doesn't count). Pip's just not that interesting, and Osorio hasn't solved the problem of the central character who has no personality. Pip is such a cipher that there's nothing much you can do with him.
Sir Alec Guinness and John Mills celebrate the fact they're
not playing Pip in David Lean's version of Great Expectations
I sat through the Royal Shakespeare Company's six hour production of Nicholas Nickleby and wasn't bored for a second. Book-It Repertory is right up there with them so I can only conclude that a mere three-hour Great Expectations bored me because Nicholas Nickleby is a WAY better book than Great Expectations.
In one peculiar piece of double casting, Sylvie Davidson, who was brilliant in a previous production of Emma, plays Estella and Biddy, the two women in Pip's life, turning Pip into Dylan McDermott in My Best Friend's Wedding where he has to choose between Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. Awww, poor baby. We're suppose to want him to go with the one that's nice instead of the one that's devious, but believe me, every male in the audience was thinking "Either one, dude." When Pip has the choice between two characters played by the same incredibly beautiful actress, we're pissed off he doesn't get a happy ending with either one. As my rampantly heterosexual companion pointed out, the only thing that kept him going through the boring parts of Great Expectations was imagining Sylvie Davidson naked.
Gwyneth Paltrow took off HER clothes in Great Expectations.
Why didn't Sylvie Davidson?
Like David Copperfield, Pip isn't the hero in his own life, that role goes to Michael Patten as Magwith, or is it Jaggers? So many dual roles can screw with your brain, which is why I like them, and characters like Pumblechook and Joe and Miss Havisham are such extravagant caricatures that they virtually demand the actors go over the top. Jane Jones excels as both Pip's sister and Miss Havisham, both entirely disagreeable harpies, and once again giving Pip a strange choice between twin devils, the one he knows and the one he doesn't. Everyone in the cast has a ball.
I admire Book-It's work so much that I tend to blame any problems I have on the book itself. When they do a book I love, I love the production, and when they do a book I hate, I want to tear my hair out. So I guess what I discovered is that I hate Great Expectations, but that can't be true, Charles Dickens is my hero, so it must be something else, like my own great expectations that they will enhance the simple reading of a book with stunning performances and brilliant stagecraft. They did an excellent job of convincing me that watching this production was WAY better than having to read the book. Though they publish a Great Expectations study guide, it's hard to imagine that this, or any production of Great Expectations would turn a modern teenager into a Dickens fan without making Pip a werewolf.
If this sounds unreasonably harsh, it's only because this production comes in at a 9 instead of their usual 10. The book didn't feel enhanced, only performed, leaving the brilliance to Dickens in what is unfortunately one of his most plodding books in which the style has not aged well. Adapter Lucinda Stroud did a splendid job adapting Dickens' writing style to the Book-It style, and Director Kevin McKeon kept things moving, but it goes on and on and could use losing at least half an hour.
I don't remember which half-hour it was that put me partially to sleep, slipping into the Dickens of my mind, flashing through all the other adaptations, both faithful and un, David Lean and South Park, strobing between black-and-white and color, Miss Havisham creating the Genesis device that collects the tears of Estella's boyfriends in order to make a potion to make her young again, walking down the grand staircase, ready for her close-up, Pip making love to Estella in the swamp, or is it Biddy, Davidson madly changing characters back and forth like Faye Dunaway at the end of Chinatown, reminding me that Book-It has GOT to do a Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson or Dashiell Hammett or Robert J. Parker or anything with a hard boiled detective, noir for moi, when I was suddenly woken by robot monkeys defending Miss Havisham from hordes of theatergoers who already read the book. That's the half-hour they should lose.
As long as you're not Pip, take me!
The moral lesson Pip learns is one of Dickens' best but it happens to a character about as interesting as Candide, the least interesting character in Candide, and whose quest to be a "gentleman" is one we don't even partially heartedly endorse. The ending is particularly pathetic if you don't give a damn about Pip. I certainly don't blame the actor who gave it his all. I'm afraid the only way to save this production is to get into a time machine, go to London in 1860, and threaten to break Charles Dickens' fingers if he doesn't make Pip a more interesting character. On the other hand, an all nude Great Expectations would be pretty fabulous though pointless. Maybe if only the poor people wore no clothes.
My humble suggestion? Lose the fake English accents, move the whole thing to post-civil war New Orleans, and make Pip black. Miss Havisham is a character right out of a Tennessee Williams play anyway, and the struggle of newly freed slaves to be accepted into white society is a peculiar mirror of the class struggles in the England of Dickens. The script wouldn't have to be changed that much, and since there's virtually no set, all they have to switch is accents, costumes, and a little casting. (Sorry Lee Osario, you were great, really, it's just that you in blackface is problematic.)
And put the robot monkeys back in.