Translating ‘Great Expectations’ from page to stage

Benjamin Bonenfant

Benjamin Bonenfant plays Pip in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Bonenfant came from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival where he played such roles as Henry V in “Henry V,” Prince Hal in “Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2, and Ferdinand in “The Tempest.” We visited over iced coffee at Mix. (This is the first part of a two-part column. The second will be published Aug. 22.)

EH: How do you approach a role?

BB: It’s different for every role, for instance, doing a Shakespeare versus doing an adaptation of a novel. A Shakespeare play has all the necessary information in the lines. The time, place, what’s happening in the world, the way people feel, and the qualities of the characters, all of that information, you get by studying the text of the play. You look for every reference to your character from all of the other characters. Shakespeare gives it all to you, so you get the fullest picture. It’s all in the words.

We’re adapting a tremendous novel in “Great Expectations,” so rather than starting with the lines of the adaptation that we have, I felt I wanted to go to the book. The adaptation sometimes has to skip through the story and highlight certain bits. I try to load those highlights with as much of the fuller context, given in the book, as possible.

Trying to understand the character, as Dickens illustrates him, was my first step. It was very internal. I was working inside out as opposed to outside in. Dickens wrote the book from Pip’s point of view. If I read the book, I get his every little thought, his inner monologue, his unfair judgments, the things that disgust him, the things that excite him, and the things that scare him. There’s so much richness in the book, so many layers to every character, and the dynamics between them are all nuanced, very specific. And the way Pip’s mind and his heart undulates and vacillates through the story is very specific. I felt that we wanted to imbibe as much of that as we could.

The adapters devoured this story and found all the nuances that really sing as much as possible. We’ve tried to infuse a three-hour play with so much of that richness. I don’t think that it can ever reach critical mass. It seems that there is even more that we can back it up with and more that we can fill in the cracks with. We try to continue to dig a little deeper and get a little bit more of what we think is going on in there.

You might have a scene in the book that was 12 pages long, and it’s a lengthy and even relaxed dialog between two characters. In our play it might be five lines long, and every line has to deliver big pieces of information, big changes of heart, and new revelations. The more that you load small lines with all of that, it starts to head toward melodrama, because each line has to be more intense and important. But we try to let the melodrama speak for itself and believe it as we go.

EH: What’s the play about?

BB: I believe that the parenthetical subtitle of the book is “Great Disappointments.” If there is to be any hope in the end, it comes from relinquishing those expectations, rather than them being fulfilled in any way.

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