Nina-Morgane Madelaine introduces herself as Lucie Manette and explains she’s making a documentary about her family – who are, as it happens, the main characters of Charles Dickens’s historical thriller A Tale of Two Cities. They are sat at a table in a small, half-open wooden house; her camera projects a live image onto the exposed ceiling. They introduce themselves with the mannered cadence of naturalness, committing to an observational comedy of awkwardness.
The choreography is, initially, an exaggerated, even microscopic study of bodies under stress (slow-motion fighting through a crowd; roiling and staggering through drunkenness or storm-tossed ships). But this witty simplicity, ironically undercut by performers breaking the fourth wall or interrupting one another, emphasises that we are watching a story being told – that we are, as we will learn, watching Lucie Manette being lied to by her parents.
Director Ben Duke has boiled Dickens’s 400-page novel to its internecine bones. His most radical and praiseworthy departure is the figure of Thérèse Defarge (Temitope Ajose-Cutting) – a ghoulish antagonist who becomes a sympathetic, honourable presence. He glosses over international political intrigue and the French Revolution, but he can condense the repetitious, compulsive nature of trauma into a three-minute mosh.
As the truth about Lucie’s family is revealed, there is a series of gorgeous duets – between Defarge and Mama Manette, between Lucie and her mother, between father and son. Mama Manette and Defarge whip across the stage in a brisk tango, with the stamping energy of anger but locked in an embrace of equals. Lucie’s father Charles Darnay and his son retell, in dance, the story of Darnay’s escape from death, in rolling, tender drops and switching, intertwined limbs, their exchange of weight literalising an exchange which saved Darnay’s life.
It doesn’t, perhaps, have the straightforward pitch and emotional trajectory that made Duke’s Juliet and Romeo such a blazing success, nor is it quite as magically discursive as his stupendous Goat, but A Tale of Two Cities is a moving, radical and irreverent piece of not-really-adaptation.