Every ten years or so someone decides to put some part of the bible on stage. The latest attempt is To Begin With by local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Hennepin Theatre Trust, performing in the old Wesley Church). Hatcher has taken a slim volume by Charles Dickens and used it as a jumping off point for a play about Dickens trying to teach his children, and their neighbor’s son, about the life of Jesus. Hatcher is a successful and prolific writer with many credits to his name. Without a doubt, To Begin With is a work by a playwright who knows how to frame a work with a fictional plot.
The play centers on the fact that Charles Dickens and his family once met the young Algernon Swinburne while on the Isle of Wight. I don’t know how many people on this side of the Atlantic know that Swinburne was a Victorian poet who wrote dark, sadomasochist poetry. Hatcher doesn’t explain this and I suspect most people in the audience will think the young Swinburne is meant as to symbolize the devil. He is introduced to us when Dickens relates that he saw a naked boy in the church cemetery taunting him for his belief in God. From there the plot thickens when young Swinburne befriends Dickens’s children and Dickens decides to instruct his children in the life of Christ.
Not only is this production staged in the 125-year-old Wesley Church, a perfect Victorian setting, but the show has what could be the perfect actor to play Charles Dickens: his great-great grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens. He certainly looks the part with his ancestor’s hair, beard and portly stance.
Doing ninety minutes, solo, on stage is never easy. One must appreciate the shear stamina it takes to pull it off. As an actor, Gerald Dickens is at his best when given the chance to impersonate characters such as King Herod, the Magi and a cynical Pharisee in campy, over-the-top portrayals that add humor and variety to the text.
But I wonder at director Hatcher’s and actor Dickens’ choice of a continuously fast pace for the drama. Like a steam engine it runs full-throttle throughout. Bombast and overly dramatic acting were part of the Victorian stage but variations in tempo and mood are necessary in any stage production. The audience should savor lines such as, “I dropped the pretense, truth was all.” Live theater gives us an opportunity to see writer Charles Dickens go through emotional stages of self-reflection, humility, and wonder. Hatcher wrote these opportunities into the show, but for some reason they are not performed. What we get is 90 minutes of bombast and sweeping gestures.
In the end, there is an epiphany for the writer Dickens and his young nemesis Algernon Swinburne. They reconcile in the church yard. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that Swinburne in life went on to write vivid anti-theist works and that Victorian sensibilities and virtues only fueled his sadomasochism.
The press packet states that plans are to take the show on tour throughout the US and then open it on London’s West End in 2018 “starring a well-known actor.” With the help of a few adjustments and a deity or two it may make it.