Pickpockets, prostitutes rowdy drunks and con artists all feature, immersing us into a dank Victorian Britain, recreating the dark and dismal world of the lower orders of London.
Originally published in 20 monthly instalments running to 600-plus pages with dozens of subplots, how does one go about turning that into a single play?
International master theatre maker David Glass is the man who tackled the task, with his first UK show in 12 years.
‘We get through it in about two hours, and you have to make certain decisions and choices. It’s a little bit like Romeo and Juliet – there’s lots of other things going on, but all you need are Romeo and Juliet – so at the heart of it is Esther Summerson and her mother, and the journey of them finding each other, set against a legal system hell bent on keeping people poor and destroying everyone.
‘That became the core of it. And whilst there are lots of other plots – I think there are 42 plots in the original and 146 characters – we’ve got two plots running through this.
‘I think if people know it, they’ll recognise it as Bleak House, but you couldn’t do Dickens’ Bleak House completely.’
A co-production between New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth and Theatre Royal Winchester with the David Glass Ensemble, the ambitious piece sees David take on one of Dickens’ less-staged novels.
‘I’ve always loved Bleak House, I think it’s one of Dickens’ best books. For me, he’s miles ahead of Shakespeare in terms of relevance – and I love Shakespeare.
‘People endlessly do Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, but actually, I think Bleak House is his best story and his most relevant story.
‘It also has a young woman destroyed by the law trying to find her identity at the centre of it all. Which is very relevant now, and the need for women to find their voices and the way the law destroys people.
‘You’ve got to make theatre that is relevant – but is also resonant. Basically, Dickens was a great storyteller, and you’ve got to give people stories. Issues don’t make great theatre, stories do.
‘Dickens knew how to pull the heartstrings, make you think, make you cry, make you laugh. It’s a visually exciting melodrama, played out with really some excellent performances.
‘It’s very visual and very physical and very musical as well. We’ve had people come along from very young to very old, and they’ve all enjoyed it.’
David has made a name for himself in tackling sprawling sagas – he’s previously adapted Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.
‘I guess I’ve got a name for doing these big stories. I’m quite good at seeing the centre of a story as a piece of theatre and then working at that.
‘I’m a great lover of a good story, but you have to say that at the end of the day, a novel is a novel and a piece of theatre is a piece of theatre, and you want to create something that is powerfully engaging and entertaining and perhaps makes you think at the end. I think this does all three.’
When we talk David is actually in Serbia, working on the AB Project. The three-year project, which is taking place across nine countries uses the Utoya massacre of 2011, where far-right extremist Anders Breivik slaughtered 69 young people on the Norwegian island.
This ambitious project uses the real life tragedy as a source for positive expression and renewal. In 2020 the project will culminate in an International Youth Production, based loosely on the book One Of Us by Asne Seierstad.
But as David notes of the terrorist attack: ‘It’s very relevant to what’s happening now with polarisation – it’s sort of become a precursor to what’s happened elsewhere, and it’s something young people are very concerned about.’
Bleak House is David’s first UK production for more than a decade, but as he says, he sees things from a more global perspective: ‘I don’t see nations, I see people. I think artists don’t see nations – what I see is beautiful and terrible human beings telling stories in life.
‘And I believe now more than ever, we need artists to give stories to our hearts and minds and to give passion to see a future for the young and also for the old – they want to see that stories are still being told that are something relevant, not just seeing Mamma Mia! for the millionth time. Nothing against it, but you’ve seen it.
‘We need to start telling more stories because we’ve got amazing stories happening everywhere.
‘Although I would say I’m an international artist, I still have great commitment to the young of the UK and what they’re going through at the moment.’ Over the course of his career David has worked in 74 countries, with everyone from children to chief executives of big business and international stars.
And through it all, he sees art as essintial to life – not something frivolous.
‘For me it’s never a luxury – it’s at the very heart, the fabric of our life.
‘We have this terrible Victorian attitude to the arts that it’s a luxury for those who can afford it.
‘No, it’s not a luxury, it’s the very centre of growing up.’
And he tells us what he says to CEOs after he has given them one of his in-demand creative leadership courses.
‘I ask them to do is ask them to close their eyes and to imagine a world without Netflix, without stories, without poems, without music, without films – are you happy? Is this a world you want you or your children to live in?
‘And they say: “Of course not”, so I tell them stop giving artists a hard time and start giving them little bits of money – they’re the most productive people you’ll ever meet with the least money.’
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth