Thackeray prefaced his book with a short piece apparently explaining that the characters were just "puppets" who lived, ate and made love in a (fictional?) world that was neither moral nor immoral. Some have taken this at face value. However the book is generally seen as a savage satire and even today the appearance of Knight of the Realm, Sir Pitt Crawley, is rather shocking in that the reader just as much as the characters in the book, mistake him for a footman or even watchman such are his appearance and manners - breaking a convention that other Victorian writers such as Dickens and Trollope strictly observed. In the opening chapter the exceedingly disrespectful young Becky Sharp is again a character set against the Victorian archetype. Neither virtuous nor fallen woman (generally the literary alternatives at the time), Becky Sharp fights her way through life using her sharpness of perception and her bodily attractions - sometimes winning, sometimes losing badly.
Thackeray portrays a world where people can and do behave badly and act grossly. They are though not puppets - satire is not the portrayal of puppets, rather a clear-sighted, uncharitable and somewhat exaggerated version of reality. Thackeray is writing without rosy spectacles. The virtuous do not necessarily live happily ever after and the bad go unpunished. The weak, it seems, go to the wall. His preface then should be seen as a disingenuous disclaimer to quiet and fob off those who took exception to the sourness of his portrayal of humanity. But the book stands on its own two feet. The real Becky Sharp, on the make and none too scrupulous, existed then, she exists today, as do all the other characters but it requires the removal of the rose-tinted spectacles to see them - and perhaps some courage to write about them too.
This production plays the story entirely straight - an excellent cast portraying their characters realistically and without exaggeration, living according to their respective values and the hand Life deals them. It is left to the titles - the visuals and the music - to sound a ripe raspberry at their antics - and to remind us that this is not a puppet show but a sharp satire on how some people lived in England 200 years ago.
A pretty fine cast, not all though got an opportunity to shine, but memorable were Jeremy Swift as a perspiring great dumpling Jos Sedley; an unsmiling, uncharming and unsightly Lord Steyne, removing the noble from the nobility; Philip Glennister as the ever reliable Dobbin; Nathaniel Parker as the dashing officer/adventurer snared by adventuress, Becky Sharp. The problem however I had with Natasha Little was that she was no seductress, there was no sweetness (however false) that surely would have been an essential weapon in her fight to get what she wanted? Perhaps the book does not make clear the nature of her appeal to men, only her will, her lack of scruples and the mixed success she had. Was she too sharp to successfully mask it with sweetness? Was her practical, cool matter-of-factness attractive? Perhaps for all his sharp observation, Thackeray did not have intimate knowledge of such aggressively ambitious women?
Nobody mentions adapter Andrew Davies? Probably because he has done his job so well that nobody notices.
I rather doubt there will be a better version.
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