Blog by Simon Gleave who plays Tulkinghorn & John Jarndyce
What is the Ensemble’s Bleak House?
What we are doing with Bleak House is driving beneath the original novel to the ground on which it was built: orphans, grief, hope, destruction, power and freedom. This is what Dickens’ story is about for us and we have struggled to bring it to our audience both as a Victorian melodrama and as a story for our times. Each theme is framed within the asphyxiating machinery of the law, the injustice of conservative bureaucracy and psychopathy of the elite class. The struggles, violences and absurdities are made – as always in the Ensemble’s work – as physical, visual and visceral as health and safety guidelines will allow.
There are times the piece will disgust you, at least we hope so. When discussing modern and Dickensian England, I think disgust is an appropriate reaction to the violence and stupidity of what we see around us. There is awe too. These are stories of love and survival in Bleak House that manage to endure the pain and degradation that frame the piece allowing our orphan protagonist, Esther, to survive knowing she was made in love even as she was raised in coldness.
The protagonists are predominantly orphans: those who have been abandoned, left behind and but for the grace of the kind might have fallen and kept falling… the reminder comes at a time when the Ensemble is again pushing work that invokes the destruction of the young by a treacherous elder and over-class, intent (unwittingly, coincidentally or malevolently) on riding the rising margins up even as the labour and waste of their climb disintegrates into the lower depths.
Gravity becomes the spatial metaphor of the rise, fall, push and pull of the characters’ journeys; obviously there is a deeply charged image of class implicit in an urchin scrambling in dirt as lawyers swing from the rafters, but the verticality of the piece ultimately returns again and again to hope and despair, power and oppression, loss and gain – the themes of human tragedy.
Nature becomes pathetic fallacy, destructive and liberating force at the other end of the elastic to society. Against the machinations of the law, the pounding memories of state-sold combat and the grotesque overtures of the upper-upper-ruling-upper-upper-top-elite- upper class, nature presses her roots, drags the characters down into her soil and covers them in her snow, rain and leaves. Summer’s irrepressible heat stifles Bleak House just like the Jarndyce case. The winter’s cold finally destroys a street urchin, but we are under no illusion that it was society and its individuals that degraded and destroyed the boy. Horses return as the wild force of nature and vehicles of cruelty and war dragging people to their fates. Birds alone are permitted freedom.
Ultimately, in Bleak House we have a broken, deeply charged retelling of Dickens’ vast, epic portrait of England’s injustice and the intransigence of its legal, monetary and emotional systems. All this at a time when injustice is as clear and pulsating in England right now via our own endless, convoluted, elite-driven legal fuckabout, which will destroy people in its own way as it was (within reason) in Dickens’ times. Our performance and this production is a provocation against the grotesqueries of Englishness and a hopeful, angry invocation of our common hope and humanity.