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Book Report: The Nicholas Nickleby Story

So. What with this whole Petherbridge business and all, when a Gentle Reader of this Tohu Bohu offered to lend me The Nicholas Nickleby Story: The Making Of The Historic Royal Shakespeare Company Production by Leon Rubin, I jumped at the chance. It’s a terrific book, and does a great job of illustrating just how crazy the RSC was to do the thing in 1980, and how unlikely it was to succeed, and how really really unlikely it was to solve their funding problems for years. Mr. Rubin was the assistant director, assistant to the two co-directors (not exactly co-equal, tho’, as one of the co-s was Trevor Nunn who was at the time Artistic Director of the RSC, so there’s certainly a sense in which Mr. Rubin was assistant to the assistant) and had insight into the process from both an artistic and an administrative angle. I’d recommend it as a balance to a really good production diary written by one of the actors, only there isn’t one. Alas.

This lack is particularly keen because few of the actors come across as vibrant characters in this story—to be honest, Mr. Rubin doesn’t really write vibrant characters and is better at describing problems and solutions. Still, you get a sense of David Edgar, the playwright, and the co-directors, Mr. Nunn and John Caird, and the composer Stephen Oliver, and the set designer, more than you do the actors. Roger Rees does become a character, and you get a sense of him as the lead actor in more than one sense, pushing the production toward his view as well as acting out the others’. Mr Petherbridge has a couple of good scenes in the book, as does Bob Peck, but John Woodvine barely appears at all, and while he is effusive about Ben Kingsley’s Squeers, there’s no depiction of Mr. Kingsley’s process of creating the character. Digression: I know that the broadcast version is not the original cast, nor yet the second cast, but I find I cannot keep in my head the idea that Alun Armstrong was not the first Squeers. I certainly cannot imagine Ben Kingsley in the role. I would be fascinated to know how Mr. Armstrong approached the role, joining the cast after the long development was over. Someone should really be doing some sort of oral history of the show now, before anyone else dies. Anyway, this book doesn’t present a Ben Kingsley to usurp Mr. Armstrong in my mind, so I’m sure I will continue to forget that he played the part. End description.

The bulk of the book, of course, depicts the months-long period of research and improvisation that forty-odd actors went through with three directors and a playwright and the novel. I would have hated that process. Oh, Lord, would I have hated it. As did some of the cast, evidently, although most of them stuck it out. For which I am grateful, if not really understanding.

Now, during much of that period, the actors were also performing Shakespeare in repertory. That is, depending on the show and the part, they were putting in full days preparing NickNick and then playing George Page in Merry Wives of Windsor in the evening, and then coming back the next day to work on NickNick all day and play Iago at night. These are roles Bob Peck actually played in Newcastle in the last weeks before NickNick premiered, while he was learning Sir Mulberry Hawk and Big John Yorkshireman—more accurately he was rehearsing the NickNick roles whilst David Edgar was simultaneously writing them. John McEnery whilst preparing to play Mr. Mantalini, among others, was playing Pistol and Roderigo. Mr. Rubin doesn’t give a sense of what that was like at all, but then, he was spending those nights in meetings with Mr. Caird and Mr. Nunn and Mr. Edgar, amongst others. Probably just as exhausting.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,