Friends of the Dickens Form,
Herb Moscovitz thanks Michael Patrick Hearn for this post which, at
some points, not only speaks of the great production of NN
featuring Roger Rees, but also casts light on the novel: (pjm)
> The late Roger Rees, who won a Tony Award for his performance in _The Life
> and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby_
> 1981 - Leon Rubin - The Nicholas Nickleby Story
> On Victorian sensibilities
> Roger Rees became obsessed with the fact that the Victorians used long
> tablecloths to cover up the tables completely, so that unsuspecting persons
> would not be caused sexual embarrassment looking at table legs.
> On Dickens and social issues
> Roger Rees had extraordinarily detailed Mayhewesque memories of Dickens in
> his childhood. He was brought up near Clapham junction and recalled that
> Dickens gave him his first awareness of what the sounds meant of the trains
> rolling past. He used to sit and play on coal lorries, and it was after
> reading Dickens that he understood that they belonged to the real world, and
> real people worked on them. Dickens, he is quite sure, gave him the
> beginning of his social awareness. He also remembered that at twelve he was given,
> as a divinity prize, Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby,
> and read them all with great relish.
> Roger Rees poked his head between two black curtains and silently surveyed
> the room. Then, his face indicated that he had seen someone or something
> and then he disappeared again. "That's it," he said. "Have you guessed it?"
> We hadn't. It was, he assured us, the enigmatic figure of Brooker, the
> former convict who had followed Smike to Devon. Roger was enacting the scene
> where Brooker hides behind a tree until he sees and recognises Smike. Roger
> had been, in fact, the first actor to perform the exercise and had played it
> like a game, to break the ice.
> On the rehearsals being filmed
> Roger Rees and Bob Peck had been filmed by the same team whilst they were
> touring The Three Sisters and Twelfth Night for the RSC. They both spoke
> highly of the producer, Andrew Snell, although Bob concluded with: "You can
> like them, but you can't forget they're there." When someone argued that it
> was wrong to show to the public all the private part of our work in the
> theatre Roger passionately replied: "We need to show them that we're not
> magicians. The public must see us working and arguing and talking even if
> personally we may not always be seen in the best light."
> New arrivals
> When Roger Rees heard that Clare TraversDeacon and Juliet HammondHill were
> joining us he solemnly declared, "Well, that's four already, who are the
> On the friendship between Roger and David Threlfall
> One final visit that took place during our time in Newcastle must be
> mentioned. Roger Rees and David Threlfall took advantage of a day off to drive
> over to Greta Bridge in Yorkshire to explore the setting of Dotheboys Hall.
> Although they had worked together for a year at Stratford they were not
> particularly close. They both came from very different backgrounds, social and
> theatrical. David Threlfall, a very young and unconventional actor from a
> fringe theatre background, contrasted markedly with Roger Rees, a little
> older and more experienced and of a mainly conventional RSC background. Since
> deciding that art school was not the place for him, he had taken up
> Separately, both had begun to build their characters, but the closeness
> and intimate stage relationship that was needed did not yet exist between
> them. The journey to Greta Bridge suddenly changed that. They looked around at
> the supposed site of Dotheboys Hall, and the more bleak patch of land that
> a local suggested was the real site of Mr Shaw's Academy for Boys. They
> found the gravestone of a small boy of London parents who had died there: his
> name was Digby, the pseudonym given to Smike by Nicholas at Portsmouth.
> They were both deeply moved by that lonely grave. As they explored the open
> countryside they had to take shelter from the weather in an old cowshed. As
> they sat together waiting for the weather to clear, like Nicholas and
> Smike flung together on their first flight from Yorkshire, they talked to each
> other intimately for the first time, and were drawn together as friends, as
> they had never been in rehearsal. Back in rehearsal over the next few
> weeks their stage relationship also began to transform itself into a close bond
> of warmth and care. Greta Bridge did, it seemed, have one positive role to
> play in the Nicholas Nickleby story,
> The search for Nicholas
> Whilst Edward began to create Newman Noggs, Roger Rees battled on with
> Nicholas Nickleby. Having been given the unenviable task of playing a hero
> half his age, Roger had immediately thrown himself energetically into the job.
> Nicholas is not at first sight a particularly attractive role for an actor
> such as Roger, who has now declared Nicholas to have been his last
> juvenile lead. (But of course, he forgets Hamlet when he declares this.) Roger is
> incapable of doing anything halfheartedly. His immense energy and
> enthusiasm is contagious to all around him and he is the perfect company leader.
> From the early Stratford days of the project onwards he had been at the
> centre of all we did. He is probably the best liked acting member of the RSC,
> and uses his instinctive sense of tact and diplomacy to promote his beliefs
> without offending anyone. His charismatic personality draws people to him
> from all directions. He has numerous fans who collect after each performance
> at the stage door and write him countless letters, all of which he answers.
> Roger is also the perfect actor to direct. Whilst always offering his own
> inventive thoughts and ingenious interpretations, he is quick to respond to
> outside direction. He thrives on notes and criticism and is always keen to
> try other ways of working. His ability to listen to an actor and share an
> acting process is the same as his attitude to all those around him. Roger
> is a great listener to all his colleagues and the public who come to see
> But there is another side to Roger, not so often seen. Underneath the
> generous exterior is a very tough, determined man. Although always listening to
> others, he has a sharp, critical and sometimes sardonic sense of humour.
> He is quick to identify the weakness in others and is able to locate
> people's foibles precisely and fix upon the absurdity of certain situations with a
> lightning wit that can often sting. Roger knows what he wants and how,
> patiently, to get it. His love of many of the RSC's traditions and methods of
> work go hand in hand with a healthy irreverence for the rest of it when he
> believes it to be stale or insufficient. He is deeply critical of
> directors and actors who do not nurture carefully enough their productions once
> they have opened. Roger continues working on a role throughout a production.
> It is these resilient and tougher sides of Roger's nature that help to
> make him such a fine actor. He understands violence and anger as well as the
> brighter sides of characters' natures that come so easily to him. Roger and
> the directors knew that he had to find those darker moments in Nicholas in
> order to discover the full, complex, imperfect hero described by Dickens
> The young Dickens, at twentysix years, was disturbed and angered by the
> injustices around him. Nicholas too is an angry young man of his time who at
> moments of high emotional strain suddenly has recourse to violence. Nicholas
> viciously attacks Squeers when he beats the helpless Smike. Nicholas does
> not "somehow come between them" (like the conscientious objector who was
> asked by the army tribunal what he would do if he saw his sister being raped)
> but goes a stage further and beats Squeers violently to the ground.
> He had scarcely spoken when Squeers, in a violent outbreak of wrath and
> with a cry like a howl of a wild beast, spat upon him, and struck him a blow
> across the face with his instrument of torture, which raised up a bar of
> livid flesh as it was inflicted. Smarting with the agony of the blow, and
> concentrating into that one moment all his feelings of rage, scorn, and
> indignation, Nicholas sprang upon him, wrested the weapon from his hand, and,
> pinning him by the throat, beat the ruffian till he roared for mercy.
> The boyswith the exception of Master Squeers, who, coming to his father's
> assistance, harassed the enemy in the rearmoved not hand or foot; but Mrs
> Squeers, with many shrieks for aid, hung on to the tail of her partner's
> coat and endeavoured to drag him from his infuriated adversary; while Miss
> Squeers, who had been peeping through the keyhole in expectation of a very
> different scene, darted in at the very beginning of the attack, and after
> launching a shower of inkstands at the usher's head, beat Nicholas to her
> heart's content, animating herself at every blow with the recollection of his
> having refused her proffered love, and thus imparting additional strength to
> an arm which (as she took after her mother in this respect) was at no time
> one of the weakest.
> Nicholas, in the full torrent of his violence, felt the blows no more than
> if they had been dealt with feathers; blur becoming tired of the noise and
> uproar, and feeling that his arm grew weak besides, he threw all his
> remaining strength into half a dozen finishing cuts, and flung Squeers from him
> with all the force he could muster. The violence of his fall, precipitated
> Mrs Squeers completely over an adjacent form, and Squeers, striking his
> head against it in his descent, lay at his full length on the ground, stunned
> and motionless.
> Although Dickens is careful here to make Squeers strike Nicholas first,
> his excessively violent response is described with great sympathy. The angry
> Nicholas strikes back in a moment when all his frustrations, hatred and
> disgust for Squeers and Dotheboys Hall culminate in one act of violence.
> Dickens defends his violent young hero in his second preface of 1848: "If
> Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always
> intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or
> no experience and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of
> Later in the novel, Nicholas is outraged when overhearing Sir Mulberry
> Hawk speak disrespectfully about Kate, his sister. After challenging Sir
> Mulberry to answer to his words and scorned by Sir Mulberry, Nicholas waits for
> him to leave the coffeehouse. Nicholas follows Sir Mulberry and grabs the
> rein of his cabriolet. The horses rear up violently, threatening to upturn
> the carriage. As Sir Mulberry Hawk strikes Nicholas, Nicholas fights back:
> "Nicholas gained the heavy handle and with it laid open one side of his
> antagonist's face from the eye to the lip".
> For Roger and the four of us it was a critical area of the character of
> Nicholas. Nicholas was not the perfect melodrama hero and we all agreed that
> such scenes should be included at all costs. The image of Nicholas's fist
> also became the dominant image for publicity for the production, featured in
> Ginni MooYoung's brilliant poster. A strident, defiant, aggressive
> defender of truth, not a cutout, gentle, passive hero.
> Roger eagerly built on those aspects of Nicholas's character and merged
> them with his earlier work on the simple, innocent Nicholas found at the
> opening of the story. Carefully watching the younger actors at work, Roger
> noticed, as he put it, their "spiky" movements, and tried to move in a similar
> way. The narrative passages in the novel also helped as Roger could speak
> as Nicholas in a wry, detached manner about the events he was involved in.
> Roger could therefore use the voice of Dickens as well as of Nicholas.
> Again, Roger exploited well this side of Nicholas that could comment and mock as
> well as be intensely involved in the situation. By the end of the six
> weeks in London, Roger had constructed a dynamic and complex character.