Andersen’s English

Niamh Cusack as Catherine Dickens and Danny Sapani as Hans Christian Andersen in 'Andersen's English' by Sebastian Barry. Photo: Robert Workman

Niamh Cusack as Catherine Dickens and Danny Sapani as Hans Christian Andersen in 'Andersen's English' by Sebastian Barry. Photo: Robert Workman

Sebastian Barry extends his fascination with storytellers and storytelling in this new bio-play, which springs from the fact that in 1857, Hans Christian Andersen paid an extended visit to Charles Dickens’ home in rural Kent, just as Dickens’ marriage to the mother of his ten children was crumbling. This is an interesting literary-historical nugget, to be sure, but finds Barry, a great novelist, again at sea in attempting to create a viable dramatic structure. The attempt here may be (in homage to Dickens, perhaps?) to simulate the multi-track narrative form of the novel onstage, but it’s unclear what Barry is trying to say by telling us about these (mostly) real-life characters’ sad, sorry lives. Some bizarre directorial choices by longtime Barry collaborator Max Stafford-Clark, in particular the casting of a black actor (Danny Sapani) as Andersen, only add to the confusion.

The play takes the form of an abruptly-introduced flashback: in 1870, in the company of an anonymous young man (the first of several awkwardly handled references to Andersen’s sexuality), the Danish writer receives news of Dickens’ death and cues the play’s action, set 13 years earlier. We discover a household in a state of barely-suppressed crisis: Dickens (David Rintoul) is pressing 16-year-old son Walter (Alastair Mavor) to join the army and fight in India, but Walter wants to stay in Kent with Aggie (Lisa Kerr), the family’s Irish maid, whom he has impregnated. Dickens is also blocking daughter Kate’s attempts to marry an impoverished painter, and cold-shouldering his long-suffering wife Catherine (Niamh Cusack) in favour of her sister Georgie (Kathryn O’Reilly), who lives with the family and looks after the children (the younger of whom are played by stick puppets, a convention that prompted some giggles from the audience).

Into this chaotic situation, unannounced, arrives Andersen, whom Dickens had met several years earlier and invited to stay with the family at some future date. Given the denseness and complexity of the scenario that Barry has created, Andersen’s presence could have provided a welcome opportunity for focus (perhaps we could viewed events through his perspective?) Barry is hamstrung, however, by the historical fact that Andersen was self-obsessed and unobservant, later writing that he had visited a happy, idyllic home. Andersen is here portrayed as an awkward man who struggles with English and is continually lurking in corners overhearing conversations – a detail which makes his character hard to fathom. (How, given how much he hears and sees, could he really not perceive the family’s misery?)

What’s missing is any clear sense of a point of view on or clear critique of the material presented. Dickens’ behaviour is, by contemporary standards, abhorrent, particularly the historically accurate moment late in the play when he tells Catherine that they will live separately and she will not see their children again. (Cusack’s impassioned reaction provides the production’s one genuinely moving moment.)

Dickens biographers and scholars are at pains to place these and other actions in their historical context, and to understand them as the perhaps necessarily selfish moves of a genius protecting his creativity. But no efforts are made here to describe or highlight Dickens’ (or Andersen’s, for that matter) talents as a writer, nor are larger points made about the life of the artist. If anything Barry’s sympathies seem to lie with Catherine, and perhaps even moreso with the Irishwoman Aggie, the play’s only invented character, who in the second act vies with Catherine and Dickens as the focus of the action. The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer has speculated that the play represents “a chippy Irish author... seeking revenge on a revered English novelist”; there is certainly the sense that a more Irish-focused play lurks beneath the surface here.

Lisa Kerr as Aggie and Alastair Mavor as Walter Dickens. Photo: Robert Workman.Stafford-Clark, perhaps taking a cue from the play’s jagged form, stages it on a cluttered, unattractive set on which different locations – dinner table, bedroom, sitting room – are crowded together. More work needed to be done, however, to create a non-naturalistic and dreamlike mood in order to provide context for quick shifts between scenes and conversations. Moments of staging in which the performers draw attention to the unreality of their situation (Walter rapping a fish he’s just “caught” against a hard surface to show it’s plastic; characters gazing through a window even though a scene is meant to be on a hillside) are too random and against the grain of the otherwise naturalistic acting to provide a sense of consistent metatheatrical commentary.

But the biggest question mark about Stafford-Clark’s production is the casting of Sapani (which is clearly a directorial intervention; the character’s ethnicity is not mentioned in the playscript). Given that the rest of the actors are white and the costuming and set design are faithful to the Victorian period (down to Rintoul being meticulously wigged and bearded to look like Dickens), it is hard to read this casting as colourblind. Rather, Sapani’s blackness is seemingly meant to underline the sense of him being an outsider – a troubling reduction and objectification of ethnic difference.

Following on from Hinterland, The Pride of Parnell Street, and Tales of Ballycumber, another Barry play has reached the stage lacking a clear dramatic focus or sense of narrative drive. Are theatre companies and directors simply in awe of Barry’s success as a novelist and therefore feel disempowered or disinclined to question his choices as a dramatist? Or is he resistant to intervention? Were Barry to truly meet his dramaturgical match and shape his excellent instincts towards rich dramatic situations into compelling stage stories, the results could be magnificent.

Karen Fricker lectures in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London and is deputy London theatre critic for Variety (US).

  • Review
  • Theatre

Andersen’s English by Sebastian Barry

7 April – 8 May 2010 (on tour from 11 Feb 2010)

Produced by Out of Joint and Hampstead Theatre
In Hampstead Theatre, London (on tour)

Directed by Max Stafford-Clark

Sets & Costume Design: Lucy Osborne

Lighting Design: Tim Bray

Sound Design: Carolyn Downing

Musical Director: Julian Littman

Hair and wigs: Richard Mawbey

Puppets: Polly Beestone

With: Niamh Cusack, Lisa Kerr, Alastair Mavor, Kathryn O'Reilly, David Rintoul, Danny Sapani, Lorna Stuart