Great Expectations. RSC in association with Cheek by Jowl Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon until February 4. Tickets: 0870 6091110
An adaptation of one of Dickens's least sentimental novels has a strong theme of redemption, as Heather Neill reports
Director Declan Donnellan describes Nick Ormerod's adaptation of Great Expectations, first published in weekly instalments in 1861, as "99.9 per cent Dickens ... It is deep and empathetic, the work of a mature man who has been through his ups and downs, less of a crowd-pleaser than some of his earlier work. It's his least sentimental novel. Estella, Miss Havisham and Pip are all highly ambivalent characters: the division between 'good' and 'bad' is least apparent in this book, with people neither despised nor idealised. Even Mrs Joe's last word is 'Pardon'. The smell of redemption runs through it."
Mrs Joe, the orphaned Pip's managing older sister, who "brought him up by hand", had not been a sympathetic character before she was brutally attacked. Joe, Pip's blacksmith brother-in-law, Biddy, Joe's second wife, and Herbert Pocket, Pip's loyal friend, are, Donnellan says: "The active voice of love in the novel." Joe is a surrogate father to Pip, but Donnellan sees the proliferation of parent-substitutes as a theme of the novel.
The story begins with Pip looking at the graves of his parents and five brothers. Then he encounters Magwitch, the convict, later revealed to be Estella's natural father, who becomes a father figure to Pip. Jaggers, the manipulative lawyer, is another "parent", as is Miss Havisham. But however important a character's family history, Dickens "is going out of his way to say we are not genetically predisposed," says Donnellan.
Snobbery is there, too, in Pip's aspirations to be a gentleman, in Estella's disdain for him and in Pip's embarrassment at Joe. "One thing that is very moving is Pip's idea of the nature of sin. He crystallises it into the 'sin' he commits when he promises Magwitch over his parents' grave that he will steal from his sister and Joe - good people. The 'good' things - Satis House and Estella - he has to learn are only a chimera. The thing he perceives as a sin is the best thing he's ever done." The book is written in the first person, something that Ormerod and Donnellan thought too important to lose in an adaptation. The play has a Chorus whose members use the word "I" in telling the story.
Dickens wrote a second ending, now the official one, in which the grown-up Pip and Estella meet in the ruins of Satis House, where they had been brought together as children by Miss Havisham. It is generally thought there is more hope of a lasting attachment in this version than in the original, where they meet fleetingly in a London street and Estella assumes wrongly that young Pip is Pip's child. But, says Donnellan, "The ending is ambivalent. It is arguable that, even in the original, there is a mystic union between them, that they are bound together for ever by a bond established in childhood."
* Declan Donnellan's, The Actor and the Target, Nick Hern Books, pound;10.99 has just been updated