Johnathan Holloway’s adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, appropriately subtitled Blood for Blood, is very much a play of oppositions. Opposition between the two cities of its title, between the multiple roles played by each member of its cast, between the two sides of the stage, between order and chaos, and perhaps most importantly between revolutionary actions taken as the result of injustice and the injustice they themselves can cause.
It is this concern that the play delivers so effectively. Across the board, the cast’s performances are impressive; they demonstrate enough range to avoid confusion when changing role, while not resorting to a caricatured or over-wrought presentation of their characters. These multiple castings allow the same face to appear behind both the perpetrator and victim of violence, as well as in both sympathetic and villainous positions. The idea of a narrative agent or evil is troubled, and the single entity left behind the suffering is cyclical violence.
The design of the stage itself purports a symmetry: ordered rows of chairs line the stage, with microphones and lights at their sides. Overhead there is industrial lighting and a single hanging chair, serving as a sort of Sword of Damocles above the action, a reminder of the violence that undercuts the main action of the play. In the centre of the stage sits Jonathan Holloway as Doctor Manette, at a terminal that could well be a sound desk. In this setting he is both actor and director; while the character he plays is functionally mute for much of the play, he exerts a constant presence.
While I have to admit that I am not particularly familiar with Dicken’s original novel, as an adaptation A Tale of Two Cities: Blood for Blood is not held back by its source material. While the historical setting sits somewhere between vague and inconsistent (guillotines are the executioner’s tool of choice but electric lighting is widespread), the play’s action doesn’t really demand a more specific demonstration of period. Similarly, while the microphones into which the actors occasionally speak don’t hold a consistent narrative or thematic purpose (that I could detect at least), they really don’t need to. In both cases what is really created is an expert control of atmosphere; the play’s focus is dramatic, not historical, and the influence of these elements far outperforms their lack of internal explanation.
A Tale of Two Cities: Blood for Blood far outstripped my expectations, both in its ability to create atmosphere and sustain thematic concerns. Its assured direction and genuine dramatic tension set it aside from a lot of other contemporary productions and it is more than worth seeing as part of this year’s festival fringe.