What happened when the acclaimed Danish poet and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen came to stay with the renowned English novelist Charles Dickens? Sebastian Barry’s new play takes an educated guess.
Andersen’s English packs a lot into one play: family relationships, marital estrangement, women’s lib, sexual repression, sibling rivalry, guest etiquette, cultural difference. All of these spin out from the crux of the drama, which is the relationship between Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine.
Like the audience, Andersen, visiting the Dickens country home, becomes witness to the increasing difficulties between the two as Dickens – played by David Rintoul as a domineering, pompous, increasingly self-absorbed fellow – gradually comes to the realisation that he can no longer live in the same house as his wife, Niamh Cusack’s emotional, heartfelt, devoted Catherine.
A factor in this decision is Catherine’s sister Georgie (Kathryn O’Reilly), who came to help Catherine look after her ever-increasing brood of children, but who has now supplanted her sister in the affections of Dickens. Barry may not show the novelist to be unfaithful in actions, but his feelings are just as heavy a betrayal.
Also contributing to Catherine’s angst is her husband’s determination to send their feeble, effeminate son Walter (Alastair Mavor) away to India to fight for the Empire. In this, the strong, masculine Dickens is seen to be very much the commanding officer of his household who will make the decisions for his women.
While Catherine has little choice but to acquiesce, their strong-willed daughter Kate (Lorna Stuart) and determined maid Aggie (Lisa Kerr) show that perhaps for the younger generation things are changing.
Andersen, meanwhile, flounders among them like a bull in a china shop, proving himself unable to take hints, fit in with local customs or make himself understood. With his bumbling English, fey mannerisms and occasional odd outbursts, Danny Sapani makes Andersen the clown of the piece, injecting humour and a touch of chaos into a family on the verge of heartache.
Max Stafford-Clark’s production for Out of Joint places all the action on Lucy Osborne’s unchanging set, which becomes kitchen, bedroom, lounge, garden and even a nearby hill. Puppets increase the size of Dickens’s family as they sit around the dining table with their Danish guest.
But Barry shows that family life is not as harmonious as these dinners, cricket games and country walks may suggest. When Andersen finally leaves and actress Ellen Ternan arrives, Catherine’s fate is sealed.