Playwright, actor and director Sam McCready has no difficulty remembering his first encounter with the genius of Charles Dickens.
‘I went to Grosvenor High School,’ he recalls, ‘and we were given Great Expectations. The teacher said, “Read the first two chapters for Monday”. Sunday came and that morning I picked up my copy, intending to read the two chapters. I read the whole book in bed that day, something I never did. I couldn’t put it down.’
That same burning enthusiasm for the great English novelist still shines brightly in McCready’s eyes six decades later. ‘The power of the story-teller is what held me,’ he says. ‘His ability to engage you totally, the wonderful characterisation.’
Although McCready, a budding actor when he first read Great Expectations, subsequently developed a consuming interest in the literature of his native Ireland, he returned to Dickens after emigrating to America to pursue a career in university teaching.
He immediately started making new discoveries. ‘I was astonished to find the humour in Dickens, which I hadn’t seen before, and indeed the whole social commentary that is going on. The man is the most complete novelist. It’s one layer after another, and that really has been my intense interest.’
McCready brought that intense interest back to Belfast earlier in 2012, for Dickens at the Ulster Hall, an absorbing one-man play examining the writer’s visit to Belfast in 1867, when he performed his famously magnetic readings from the novels to spellbound local audiences.
The show is returning next year to the Lyric Theatre, an institution McCready played a leading role in establishing when it first mounted productions in founder Mary O’Malley’s home on Derryvolgie Avenue, and subsequently in Ridgeway Street, site of the current building.
Before then, however, there is another Dickensian venture to attend to – Nicholas Nickleby at Dotheboys Hall, which McCready himself has adapted, and is directing for the Fringe Benefits Theatre Company as part of this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
In cutting Dickens’s typically bulky, 800-page novel down to manageable proportions, McCready was keen to retain as much of the original text as possible, rather than re-writing new dialogue. ‘That is where Dickens is alive,’ explains McCready. ‘The story is only a clothes line – you have to value the language, value the text.’
McCready concentrates exclusively on the first part of the novel, set in the shockingly dysfunctional environment of Dotheboys Hall, a boarding school in Yorkshire presided over by the one-eyed Wackford Squeers, who routinely beats the pupils. ‘What I used there as a model was Dicken’s own reduction of his novel, because he did readings from Nicholas Nickleby, and that’s the part of the book that he included.’
How difficult is it, I wonder, to whittle Nickleby down to size, to make lean drama out of the garrulous, grandly expansive structure of Dickens’s original story? ‘Oh, it’s easy!’ smiles McCready fondly. ‘Because it’s already there!
‘He has what any great playwright has – he has characterisation, and he gives you this storyline. The quality of his writing is that he balances comedy and pathos, grotesquerie and naturalism. If you follow his structure, you have the play. He gives you the dialogue.’
Because Dickens’s world is already so alive with vividly imagined characters, McCready is adopting a deliberately minimalist approach to the set for his adaptation.
‘It would be superfluous to start putting scenes and scenery on the stage in a 19th century way. So the set is 18 chairs and a table. I’m interested as a director in focusing on the actor and the space. I’m interested in the imagination. Dickens obviously had an extraordinary imagination, and I must try to match that in the imaginative work we are doing on stage with the actors.’
Working with young players on the cusp of a professional career is an area of particular interest for McCready, and a major focus of the developmental work done by the Fringe Benefits company, whose past members include Conleth Hill, Michelle Fairley and Richard Orr.
McCready has strong views on why working with this particular tranche of aspiring actors is important, and on what they need to do to break into a ferociously competitive profession.
‘You’re with young people there at a key moment of their potential,’ he says. ‘And I feel that I have something to contribute. The talent they’ve got, the commitment and energy they have to do this work, it can all be dissipated if the right person is not involved at that moment.’
McCready speaks with the accumulated wisdom and experience of a lifetime spent treading the boards as actor and director, working with leading lights of stage and screen such as Liam Neeson, Kevin Spacey, Adrian Dunbar, Danny Boyle, Dan Gordon and Frances Barber. And his recipe for success is simple: there is no substitute for hard work, and lots of it.
‘Discipline is important,’ insists McCready. ‘Absolute commitment to what it is you are doing. I’ve told the actors here that when I went to the United States in the early 1980s to direct off-Broadway, I discovered a work ethic that was in my opinion missing from the actors I was working with in Northern Ireland.
‘The commitment to training – to take dance classes, vocal classes, improvisational classes, to explore the different training methods they could follow in order to become a better actor. Irish actors are great natural talents. But when you move beyond that, into classical work, richer material that is outside your environment, then you need a process to go through what an actor needs to go through, to get from the text to the performance.
‘I am there as a nurturer, to open these young actors up to what that process is, what are the demands of this profession a number of them want to go into. I want them to work harder, to see the potential in what they do.’
The fruits of McCready’s latest collaboration with the rising generation of Northern Irish actors will be there for all to see when Nicholas Nickleby at Dotheboys Hall hits the stage this month at the Crescent Arts Centre.
Despite the passing of the years, Nickleby retains, according to McCready, a biting contemporary relevance. ‘Education is still too much about someone standing at the front, giving information, which is then given back,’ he says, a process satirised by Dickens in the novel.
There are darker elements in Nickleby too – the beatings, the mindless thuggery and neglect perpetrated by Squeers on his hapless educational charges – which chime uncomfortably with the apparently endless string of child abuse stories currently being reported on a virtually daily basis in contemporary media.
‘What happens in homes where children are put away for whatever reason, what happens to abandoned children, when they’re brutalised and beaten?' McCready asks. 'There’s a relevance in Nickleby to what goes on today. The inhumanity to children, it’s still happening, it certainly hasn’t gone away. And that’s in Dickens.’
Nicholas Nickleby at Dotheby's Hall runs in the Crescent Arts Centre from October 25 - 28. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's runs until November 4.