“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” There are few more iconic opening lines than those of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution. For many, they instantly evoke images of the red, white and blue cockade, or else the grisly guillotine.
But for scriptwriter Ayeesha Menon, Dickens’ opening lines bring to mind far more familiar images: Syrian children being pulled from rubble; fighters clashing against the Assad regime. “When I heard those first few lines,” she tells me, “I thought, gosh, I could have written this on any news item today [about] the war in Syria.”
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Late last year, Menon set about adapting Dickens’ novel for Radio 4. The resulting three-part drama is updated to modern-day London and Aleppo, Syria, where the civil war rages. For Menon, the original text “clicked immediately” with the current situation in Syria: “Dickens speaks as if he is speaking about today… It’s amazing how well it fits.”
Menon is no stranger to reworking Dickens’ famous works for a modern audience. For Radio 4’s The Mumbai Chuzzlewits, adapted from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, Menon – who is Indian herself – set the tale in the Catholic community in modern-day Mumbai, India.
“Charles Dickens speaks about deprivation and war and suffering… it’s so Victorian that it doesn’t match modern day London. But these things are happening in so many parts of the world,” she says. “That’s why we’ve done Dickens in India so many times; it’s worked like a charm because of the rich and poor divide.” But for Tale of Two Cities, Menon says, “the war just speaks of the Middle eastern crisis so much”.
In A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London, which first airs on Sunday 20th May at 3pm on Radio 4 and stars Poldark’s Phil Davis, Dickens’ central love triangle between a feckless but brilliant lawyer, a handsome exile and the woman they both love remains much the same. But Menon has fleshed out the two female roles – Lucie, now Lina, and the mysterious Madame Defarge, now Taghreed – and brought the pair to the fore. Taghreed is the show’s narrator, fulfilling a role similar to Aaron Burr’s in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
“Madame Defarge, in the novel, was really appealing to me,” Menon explains. “Dickens sometimes has these really small characters who are quite flat. They’re not really characters, they just sort of represent an ideology of the time… I thought, how can I make her [Madame Defarge/Taghreed] a real person now?”
Taghreed (played by Fatima Adoum) was Menon’s favourite character to write: “I love complex characters [where]… you don’t know whether they’re villains or heroes, but you’re drawn to them nevertheless because you understand them.”
In the novel, the female love interest Lucie is “sweet, gentle” but, Menon says, devoid of real character: “She’s just a pretty girl.” In the new adaptation, however, Lina is a “hard ass” Syrian news reporter living in London, and the driving force behind much of the story.
Lina is voiced by Lara Sawalha, whose real-life uncle, Nadim Sawalha, plays Lina’s father, Dr Mahmoud. “Their chemistry was almost ready made,” Menon says.
The real-life conflict in Syria has wreaked a devastating impact on women, which also influenced Menon in her portrayal of Taghreed and Lina, both brave and opinionated characters.
“I wanted there to be strong [female] voices who kept on being suppressed and subjugated but still wanting to do something,” she tells me.
The play is set over several years, beginning in 2011 following the Arab Spring, before the first chemical weapons attacks and the rise of the Free Syrian Army, and ending in 2016, in a country reeling from the destructions of war. “It follows a perfect structure, a three act structure, the news in Aleppo,” Menon says.
Menon drew on Dickens’ novel throughout the writing process. For her, the most arresting images to emerge from the Syrian war have been those of children, which she found matched Dickens’ works: “All of Dickens is about child abuse.”
Menon uses the iconic opening of the novel for the radio adaptation. And throughout the script, there are phrases and keywords borrowed from the original – so many “it’s ridiculous… everything fits so well” Menon says. Often, she would unwittingly lift elements from the novel while writing, not noticing until later. “I realised it wasn’t clever me, it was Dickens!”
This adaptation, recorded in March, is far darker than Dickens’ original work, however. Redemption, a central theme in the 1859 novel, is not as easy to obtain in Menon’s reworking.
“It is bleak. Things are bleak,” she says. There were some parts of the novel that proved for her “too rosy a picture to paint… War destroys so much in its wake”.
Before starting work on the script, Menon admits she used to “systematically avoid” distressing images from the Syrian war being played out on television. “I have learned so much working on this piece,” she says. “I didn’t realise how bad it [the war] was.”
Menon hopes that the play will help to humanise the conflict, and encourage listeners to tune in more frequently to news of the conflict: “I want people to listen more and look a bit beyond their cul de sac.”
“Everyone knows Dickens, he’s so familiar – everyone’s studied him at school,” Menon says. “Then you realise what he’s talking about is not that far away from the world we’re living in today.”
A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London is a three-part series that concludes on Sunday 3rd June at 3pm on Radio 4. The first two episodes are available on iPlayer here.