Hang the cost. Pawn your mother-in-law and get to "Nicholas Nickleby" as fast as your feet will carry you. This utterly absorbing eight-and-a-half-hour staging, in two parts, of the Dickens novel is enormous fun, and by "enormous" I mean it is big, sweeping theater of a kind you are unlikely to encounter more than once in a lifetime.
On a broad, deep, dark-wood stage with many staircases and catwalks, the vast canvas of this huge novel is spread out before us in a fluent, beautifully-paced ensemble performance by 40-odd actors playing dozens and dozens of roles, many of them so sharply contrasted by certain protean actors that you will be hard put to recognize the doubling in major parts. The many narrative bridges, even single lines, are divided among all the actors and, in some of Dickens' sharp observations on the corruption and poverty rife in the teeming London of the earlier half of the 19th century, delivered en masse. Such languid moments as there may seem to be are brief, and probably due as much to the spectator's momentary lapse of attention as to the pell-mell drama itself.
The only star is the entire shining company, little changed from the one that introduced the production in London last year. This is a group performance of uncanny style, every character brought to sudden and vivid life with broad, telling strokes. For the story, with its swiftly changing scenes and multitude of characters, moves so quickly that people and situations must be established immediately.
Why "Nickleby," one might ask? It's surely not among the best and most satisfying of Dickens' works. But it plays. This great, sprawling story, threaded by its quick-witted, sensitive and undeviatingly moral young hero, probably has more showy characters than any other of his tales. And, indeed, a good chunk of it is devoted to Nicholas' experiences with Crummles' strolling players, around whom the deft adapter, David Edgar, has made a fine joke at our own expense by a slight alteration and expansion of a Dickens line.
As a matter of fact, a high point in this buoyant and masterly adaptation is a wholly-invented, brilliantly-bumbled performance of the closing scene from "Romeo and Juliet" which brings Part One to a close. Considering the hoary nature of Shakespeare parodies, and especially of "R&J," this might seem shameless; but come now, when have you ever witnessed a "Romeo and Juliet" with a deliriously happy ending?
The second half of the evening (day!), which calls to mind "Sweeney Todd" in so many respects except Dickensian warmth (19th-century London with its cruel contrasts, the stage setting itself, and even the very staging), is the more somber of the two. But the dark shadows dissolve, of course, as the villains are trapped, the iniquitous Dotheboys Hall is destroyed, and the fond couples come together under the authors' benign gaze. For most of all, this is a stout-hearted, glowing giant of a theater piece.
Every single member of the cast deserves a cheer. If I first make mention of Roger Rees' resolute and resourceful Nicholas, it is naturally because this is primarily his story. But it is also that of his sister Kate, prettily played by Emily Richard. Yet no single performance surpasses in its integrity John Woodvine's flinty, treacherous Ralph Nickleby, our Nick's uncle.
Then there's Alun Armstrong's portrait of the vicious, sycophantic headmaster Wackford Squeers; Edward Pertherbridge's Newman Noggs, Ralphs's turning worm of a secretary; Christopher Benjamin's happy-go-lucky Crummles and Lila Kaye's stately and extravagantly actorish Mrs. Crummles; Priscilla Morgan's garrulous mother of Nick and Kate; Bob Peck's suave libertine of a Sir Mulberry alongside his hearty country fellow of a Browdie. And what of Christopher Ravenscroft's admirably contrasted Mr. Lenville and Ralph Cheeryble?
But the loudest cheers go out for David Threlfall's Smike, the mentally retarded Dotheboys Hall lad Nick befriends, and whose unbelievably deformed body makes the Elephant Man look like an Olympic contestant. Threlfall, funny and touching by turns, appears to walk, hop and run on his ankles, both bent parallel (!), and with the rest of him dangerously inclined.
The dynamic staging is the combined work of Trevor Nunn, RSC artistic director, and John Caird. And absolutely invaluable to the total effect is Stephen Oliver's stunningly appropriate score, including a few songs with lyrics of his own devising, played by an offstage chamber orchestra.
The versatile setting is the joint design of John Napier, who also created the scads of costumes, and of Dermot Myers. The excellent lighting scheme is David Hersey's.
Dickens is wonderful company at any time, and loving the stage as he did he would have marveled at this "Nickleby." As will you.
Let me put it simply and plainly. The Royal Shakespeare Company in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which opened at the Plymouth Theater last night, is one of the great theatrical experiences of our time.
But I am not quite sure why. I suspect it has something to do with total immersion, something to do with ensemble acting, and even something to do with Charles Dickens. Let us take Dickens first.
Dickens was a natural dramatist who never happened to write a play. Yet his creative life was infused with the teeming incongruities of Victorian England. He saw his world in black and white - good and bad, virtue and villainy. This is an essentially dramatic concept.
When Nicholas Nickleby was first staged in London - some 18 months ago - it was greeted with a great deal of carping and cavilling by the London critics. Luckily the London public adored it, so it didn't matter a damn, and we are able to have it with us now - even if only for a regrettably brief 14-week run.
Dickens, it must be remembered, was probably the most popular novelist of his time. His novels - submitted sit-com style in weekly installments - hit the heart and conscience of a nation.
He took a dim view of society - but also, and this is equally important, a gleaming belief in the natural goodness of man. It emerges throughout the novels - Dickens was a violet optimist.
And this is the very image of Nicholas Nickleby - which happens to be, certainly not Dickens's best novel, but his most typical.
It is easy to be wise after such an event, but I do believe Nicholas Nickleby is also, as it proved last night the perfect choice for translation to the stage.
It has one great central character, Nicholas himself, a tempestuous figure of virtue, set into one of those strange tapestried backgrounds that in the chiaroscuro of its lights and darks, and also, we must own up, its social comment, is something like those bitter engravings of Victorian London by the French artist Gustav Dore.
Give credit where credit is due. The novel has been marvelously adapted by David Edgar, who takes these Dickensian vignettes and literally runs with them. There is no question in my mind that if the Royal Shakespeare Company had existed in Dickens's day, this is precisely the kind of play he would have written for it.
Of course the acting of the company - that incredible ensemble where no one can conceivably put a foot wrong - does help. So, indeed, does the direction of Trevor Nunn and John Caird, assisted by Leon Rubin.
Presumably Nunn, one of the co-artistic directors of the company, was the masterbuilder, and he has created in this theatrical edifice a magnificent mixture of craft and art.
The designing by John Napier and Dermott Hayes, with its apt realization of the world of Dickens adds enormously to the experience, as does the lighting by David Hersey and, of course, the acting.
Of course, the acting? One of the most fascinating aspects of this sprawlingly beautiful play is that you literally take the acting for granted.
Everyone is so extraordinarily good. Roger Rees, with his startling eyes and ability to take melodramatic poses as if they were sculpture, is obviously outstanding. But then so is David Threlfall as his slow-witted friend Smike, and so many others - John Woodvine, Emily Richard, Edward Petherbridge, Lila Kaye, Christopher Benjamin, and all the rest, far too many to mention. They must take a corporate bow. This is one of those stagings where ensemble perfection, and I do mean perfection, is the rule.
But apart from all its skills, both dramatic and histrionic - there is something particularly special about this play, which I hinted at earlier by the use of the word immersion.
You are surrounded by people, engulfed in Dickens, absorbed by the heroes and villains of Victoriana. This is not simply a play - it is a time machine that sends you spinning back breathlessly to the 19th Century.
Part of this is a matter of length. The play lasts eight and a half hours, with a little time off for good behavior. It can either be seen in one day - which I think is the preferable choice - or on subsequent evenings.
Every ticket in the house is $100 - and even at that, probably the theatrical bargain of the century, or at least the decade.
The greatness of Nicholas Nickleby is breathtakingly simple. The play flies. And it flies backwards. It takes you to a world of sentiment and passion glimpsed before but never known.
And so, after eight-and-a-half hours of ''The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,'' we go home with an indelible final image. The time is Christmas, and a grand Victorian happy ending is in full swing. Carolers are strewn three stories high about the stage, singing ''God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.'' Families have been reunited, couples joined together, plot ends neatly tied. And our young picaresque hero, Nicholas, has vanquished the two enemies who have stalked him for five acts - his usurious uncle, Ralph, and the cruel Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers.
But is all right with the world? Not entirely. For as Nicholas sings along with everyone else, he spots, crouching far downstage center, a starving boy. At first our hero tries to ignore the sight, but he can't. So he walks over to the youth, lifts him up into the cradle of his arms, and then stands to face the audience.
As the singing and lights dim, Nicholas stares and stares at us - his eyes at once welling with grief and anger -and what do we feel? What we feel, I think, is the penetrating gaze of Charles Dickens, reaching out to us from the 19th century, imploring us to be like his hero at this moment - to be kinder, better, more generous than we are. ''If men would behave decently, the world would be decent'' - that's how Orwell distilled Dickens's moral vision. It's a vision that can still inflame us - and does - at the very end of the Royal Shakespeare Company's marathon dramatization of Dickens' third novel.
This climax is one of maybe a dozen such moments in this production, which officially arrived yesterday at the Plymouth. Working with 39 members of a great acting company, two ceaselessly imaginative directors, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, periodically reveal that they can indeed translate Dickens into pure theater. To show how ''wealthy and poor stood side by side'' in a nascent industrial world, for instance, they give us a horrifying, mimed image of lower-class humanity pressed flat against the window of a restaurant where the wealthy dine. When Nicholas is swallowed up by the city's ''huge aggregate of darkness and sorrow,'' the directors choreograph a mob that all but eats him alive. Such staging techniques are not new in this post-Brechtian era - one thinks of Paul Sills and the Becks - but they are at times exquisitely consolidated here to root out the soul of Dickens's book, and to recreate the cinematic techniques (from cross-cutting to dissolves) of his narrative.
The novel's atmosphere - that dense and sweeping social canvas of a Victorian universe - also receives its due. With the aid of unbeatable costume and lighting designers, John Napier and David Hersey, the directors effortlessly move us from teeming London to the dark gloom of Yorkshire to the bucolic countryside of Devonshire. The set consists only of platforms, scaffolding, cagelike balconies and ratty bric-a-brac, but it extends by catwalks and planks through both levels of the theater. When the actors fan out into every nook and cranny - sometimes merging together to impersonate coaches or even walls - bodies and light sculpture the large space until a vanished England falls into place.
What does not fall into place, I must report, is a sustained evening of theater. We get an outsized event that sometimes seems in search of a shape. While the high points of this ''Nicholas Nickleby'' are Himalayan indeed, they are separated by dull passages which clog the production's arteries. The problem is not the length of work per se - it's the use of that length. In adapting a long novel to the stage, the British playwright David Edgar has chosen a strategy that is as questionable as it is courageous.
Unlike so many stage and film adapters of Dickens, Mr. Edgar has gone whole hog: he gives us at least a glimpse of every plot development and character (over 50 of substance and 200 altogether) in the original book. But how is this possible, even in an adaptation of this length? Many of the characters in Dickens's novels - especially the subsidiary ones - are not revealed through dialogue or action, but by the steady accretion of the writer's vitally observed details. In the theater, those details can only be conveyed if each actor is given enough stage time to communicate them through performance - or if a narrator reads Dickens's descriptions aloud. While Mr. Edgar does use narration here (distributed cleverly among the entire cast), he generally uses it to fill in plot rather than to supply characterizations (except in the case of a few major figures). And eight-and-a-half hours is not enough time for all the minor characters to occupy center stage as they can in a 800-page novel.
So Mr. Edgar gives some of them short shrift. The milliner Manatalini and her profligate husband, the Keswigs family, the cameo-artist Miss La Creevy and the accountant Tim Linkinwater - among others - receive television's Masterpiece Theater treatment: they appear in proper costume, in animated tableaus, but they whisk away so fast that they blur. The difficulty is not that they don't measure up to the book - that's not required - but that they don't add up to anything much at all, whether one has read Dickens or not.
Individually, their brief scenes aren't bothersome, but, collectively, they pile up as dead weight - especially in the four-hour part one. There are two theoretical ways to solve this dilemma: to make ''Nicholas Nickleby'' twice as long as it is, or to cut some of these people out and take care of their plot functions (if any) by adding to the spoken narration. The latter, far more preferable route can be accomplished - if a scenarist is willing to exercise fully his right of esthetic selectivity.
When it is dealing with its major characters - those that do have the time to reveal all their human twists -''Nicholas Nickleby'' is far more effective. (Part Two moves faster precisely because the action increasingly narrows its focus to the principal players). And the cast fixes some of these roles with images that will endure as long as we can remember them. To the protagonist - a lesser Dickens hero, who, unlike Pip or David Copperfield, doesn't really grow much during the narrative - Roger Rees brings so much flaring sensitivity and intelligence that he takes the goo out of the young man's righteousness. Similar miracles are worked on his best friends. Though at times overmilked for curtain scenes , David Threlfall's Smike - a frail, stuttering wastrel whose lame body is bent almost into a Z - is the perfect apotheosis of those oppressed souls Dickens championed. As the tipsy clerk Newman Noggs, a fallen gentleman afraid of his own every move, Edward Petherbridge elevates a comic type with rending poetry.
The two major villains are equally impressive; they never devolve into mere heavies. Alun Armstrong finds Breughelesque comedy in the sadistic schoolmaster, and John Woodvine turns Uncle Ralph into a near-Shakespearean tragic figure. When this cool, imperious businessman must finally confront the humane impulses he's suppressed for a lifetime, we see a man unravel to the terrifying point where the audience's loathing must give way to a compassionate embrace.
Through no fault of the actors or Mr. Edgar, some of the saintly characters are not so memorable. Nicholas's beloved Madeline, his sister Kate, and his benificent saviors, the Cheerybles, don't register in the novel, either. In the secondary roles, most of the company handles its multiple assignments as sharply as the script allows. Not suprisingly for a man of the stage, Mr. Edgar gives the fullest treatment by far to those supporting characters who belong to the fleabag acting troupe that Nicholas joins in Portsmouth. These provincial theatrical hams are all hilariously rendered, and their bowdlerized performance of ''Romeo and Juliet'' ends Part One on a high parodistic note that echoes the mechanicals' ''Pyramus and Thisbe'' in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.''
Interestingly enough, both the ''Romeo and Juliet'' and the production's brilliant crowning moment are the creations of Mr. Edgar. One wishes he had taken more such liberties, for these inventions are more Dickensian in spirit than many of the scenes in which he tries to be literally faithful to the book. Yet if this mammoth show recreates the breadth and plot of a Victorian novel without consistently sustaining its exhilarating mixture of pathos and comedy, one must treasure those instances when it does rise to the full power of Dickens's art. The rest of the time ''Nicholas Nickleby'' is best enjoyed - and, on occasion, endured - as a spectacular display of theatrical craft.