The springboard for Sebastian Barry’s new bio-play is the interesting real-life fact that, in 1857, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen paid an extended visit to Charles Dickens’ home in rural Kent, just as Dickens’ marriage to the mother of his 10 children was crumbling. But the play’s structural and thematic looseness reveal the great Irish novelist (“The Secret Scripture,” “A Long Long Way”) to be at sea in the dramatic form, and bizarre directorial choices, in particular the casting of a black actor (Danny Sapani) as Andersen, only add to the confusion.
The play takes flashback form: in 1870, Andersen receives news of Dickens’ death, and recalls his experiences at Gad’s Hill (Dickens’ home) 13 years before. He discovers a household in a state of barely-suppressed crisis: Dickens (David Rintoul) is pressing 16-year-old son Walter (Alastair Mavor) to join the army and fight in India, the Irish maid Aggie (Lisa Kerr) is pregnant with Walter’s baby and Dickens is cold-shouldering his long-suffering wife, Catherine (Niamh Cusack), in favor of her sister Georgie (Kathryn O’Reilly).
This is a dense and complex situation that might make sense via novelistic storytelling, but here comes across as an undramatic set of incidents. Focus might have been provided by staging events through Andersen’s perspective, but Barry is hamstrung by the fact that the Danish writer was self-obsessed and unobservant, later writing that he had visited a happy, idyllic home.
Max Stafford-Clark, perhaps taking a cue from the play’s jagged form, stages the play on a cluttered, unattractive set on which locations — dinner table, bedroom, sitting room — are crowded together.
More work needed to be done, however, to create a non-naturalistic and dreamlike mood. Random moments where the performers draw attention to the unreality of their situation (Walter rapping a fish he’s just “caught” against a hard surface to show it’s plastic, for example) run too against the grain of the otherwise naturalistic acting to provide a sense of consistent metatheatrical commentary.
But the biggest question about the production is Sapani’s casting: given that the rest of the actors are white and the costuming and set design are faithful to the Victorian period, it seems that his race is meant to underline the sense of him being an outsider — a troubling reduction and objectification of ethnic difference.
Just what Barry is trying to say through this story is never clear. Audiences interested in Dickens and Andersen’s work will get little insight into their creative lives, and Dickens comes across as callous.
His actions — in particular separating Catherine permanently from their children — need to be put into context. (Cusack’s reaction is production’s one moving moment).
As in previous plays “Hinterland,” “The Pride of Parnell Street” and “Tales of Ballycumber,” Barry reveals a strong interest in storytelling and storytellers, but little acumen for creating compelling drama.