Opinion

London Tide creator Ben Power on power of the Thames – and why Dickens' London is 'our London'

The National Theatre's new adaptation of Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend places the Thames at the heart of the action

Ben Power in London Tide rehearsals. Image: Marc Brenner

For every day of the 10 years that I worked full-time at the National Theatre, commissioning plays and writing adaptations for the stage, I walked along the river front that runs outside the building. When the NT was sited on the South Bank in the early 60s, the location next to the Thames was carefully chosen.

The National wasn’t built in the West End, in Covent Garden or Soho or the traditional entertainment hubs of the city. It was placed next to the Thames. King’s Reach, this particular corner alongside Waterloo Bridge, is the only spot on the river where one can look west and see parliament, and turn and look east and see St Paul’s.

Bella Maclean (Bella Wilfer) in London Tide at the National Theatre. Image: Marc Brenner

The institutional homes of the country’s political and religious power, and here in the middle, a concrete cathedral of ideas and stories. Between them the water, running through, joining everything together. Every time I walked along the river, I thought how much I wanted to tell a London story, and especially a river story, on the stage of the National.  

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I was born in another city on the water, Manchester, and before I moved to London I read and fell in love with the work of Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest of all the chroniclers of the capital. I saw London through Dickens’ eyes before I saw it through my own. He spent his life walking the streets and watching the river and he saw the great, hungry city in its full extraordinary complexity. He writes of poverty and deprivation, of exploitation and hypocrisy, but he also celebrates, again and again, the power of the city and the community to affect change. And central to this sense of possibility is the river.  

In Dickens’ final completed novel, the labyrinthine gothic masterpiece Our Mutual Friend, the Thames is as much of a protagonist as any of the vast ensemble of characters. The dockside communities of Limehouse and Deptford get their living from the water. The tides and currents provide the clock and calendar of days and years.

The rich characters sail on the river, the poor characters work upon it. The water unites them both. Then, as now, it is the great leveller. And for Dickens, the river stands for life and death. Bodies go into the water. Characters emerge reborn from its depths. The Thames stands as the great ancient judge of Londoner. No one, high-born or low, escapes its gaze.  

Brandon Grace (Charley Hexam), Jake Wood (Gaffer Hexam) and Ami Tredrea (Lizzie Hexam) in London Tide at the National Theatre. Image: Marc Brenner

I had a hunch that an adaptation of this book could be the river story I was seeking for the National Theatre. I began to work with the brilliant director Ian Rickson, a born and bred south Londoner. Ian introduced me to PJ Harvey, another incomer to the city, this time from the West Country, and a storyteller whose ability to conjure place and atmosphere matches Dickens’ own.

We began the mammoth task of adapting and reshaping the book and PJ began to write songs that could live alongside the scenes, deepening character and emotion and bringing this old story into our current age. Since we began to make London Tide, as we called our new play, we have seen a global pandemic and a cost of living crisis that have made the inequalities of the city as stark as ever.  

Dickens’ London is our London. He writes of a city where extreme wealth lives cheek by jowl with homelessness and need. The housing crises, food poverty, the postcode lottery of opportunity, would have been very familiar to him. In his work, he looks unflinchingly at the cruelty and relentlessness of urban life and yet somehow, he retains a deep well of hope. Because just as the city consumes, so it redeems. Dickens believes, and our play believes, that the city can save us. In fact, he believes that the community and connections allowed by the city might be the only hope we have of saving each other.  

One stormy day in February, the company of London Tide stood on the deck of a paddle steamer and looked out at the swelling, swirling river. Chris Livett, a waterman from a family of watermen, many generations of fathers and sons, told us of his life spent more on the water than on land. He told us of bodies found and lives saved. He explained the myriad ways in which the Thames reaches into every aspect of London life.

Ami Tredrea (Lizzie Hexam) in London Tide at the National Theatre. Image: Marc Brenner

The river is the city. We sailed past waterside communities that still hold to the industry which Dickens would have seen up and down the river and past shiny new apartment blocks owned by the global elite. London, in all its complexity, flowed around us.  

When audiences leave the NT after a performance of London Tide, they will be back next to the Thames and confronted again with the power and potency of the river. They will be able to watch the tide that connects us back to Dickens’ London and back even further, joining us in an ancient community of Londoners, those born here and those drawn here. As Chris Livett reminded us as we sailed on the river: “the water remains the same”.  

London Tide  is in the Lyttelton, National Theatre from 10 April-22 June – with adaptation and lyrics written by Ben Power.

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