Bjørn Clasen stars as Charles Dickens in “The best of men, the worst of men”, June Lowery’s new play about the writer’s relationships with the women in his life.
Photo: Mike Zenari
Writer June Lowery talks about the process of getting her new play, “The best of men, the worst of men”, to the stage.
“The question is, do you judge an artist by his life or by his work?” says June Lowery when we talk about her upcoming play, “The best of men, the worst of men”. The play explores the relationships between iconic writer Charles Dickens and the women he inspired and betrayed, adored and abused.
June’s interest in Charles Dickens was piqued when she adapted “A Christmas Carol” for the BGT theatre company in 2016. Reading several biographies, she discovered more and more about the author. “I thought his private life was such a modern story,” she says. “I thought, ‘oh, one day I’ll do something with that’”. That day has now come with the imminent BGT production of her new work at Neimënster.
The fact that the story features one man and several women sealed the deal for director and BGT head honcho Tony Kingston, June’s husband, who, from a purely practical viewpoint, is always seeking to put on shows with a cast that has a heavy female bias. “So, the clock started ticking and I had two years to write it,” June explains.
The more June researched the subject, the more she realised that the story of Dickens and his women, and in particular his mistress “Nelly” Ternan, resonated with much of the work she does in her day job for the European Commission as head of the DG Connect "Accessibility, Multilingualism & Safer Internet" unit. “It really is about fake news,” she explains. “He rewrote the history of his marriage; and did so very publicly. These days you have Facebook and revenge porn, you know. But Dickens published two letters publicly saying that his wife was a terrible mother and never loved her children. Total lies. But it was as he saw it.” She also argues that the 27-year age difference between Dickens and Nelly, which she finds "creepy", raises questions about online grooming and internet safety.
Page to stage
The demands of June’s day job required her to write the play in very compressed time. She finished a first draft last summer, and since then has been revising and cutting the text together with Tony. “It really is page to stage. So, I am delegating it much more to him. I am much happier this time to have that distance in the process. He knows what he’s doing and he’s a good director.” After all, the couple have been working together for some 35 years and have a great track record--in addition to “A Christmas Carol” June has also recently adapted “Jane Eyre” and “Little Women” for the stage.
June’s text has emphasised the point of view of Dickens’ wife Catherine. “I think it’s a plausible reading to say that Dickens really was influenced by the women in his life, particularly in his childhood.” Much as she enjoys his books, she finds many of the female characters in Dickens’ work hard to relate to at times. Many are “nauseatingly sweet heroines” or they are unpleasant grandmother or stepmother type characters, “older woman who are mocked," as June puts it. She wants to show that the women in his life weren’t like that at all. “They are really interesting characters”.
Another aspect that June finds astonishing is how much Dickens travelled--around Europe and twice to the United States and Canada. “It was much more international and cosmopolitan than perhaps we would think.”
Having done all that research, June approached the text by trying to root everything in fact. “I think there is one scene that I totally invented,” she says. But as an experienced playwright, she was also fully aware that what she was writing was not a lecture or presentation. “You really have to get it to work as a play. I was able to cut free and say, OK, these are going to be characters as I see them.” So, she had to cherry pick and assemble the story by making the characters come to life. “There is one particularly feisty scene between him and his mother, which was quite nice to write.”
“The best of men, the worst of men”, written by June Lowery and directed by Tony Kingston for BGT is on at Neimënster from 22 to 25 January at 8pm every evening (with an additional matinee performance at 3pm on Saturday). Click here for tickets.