Monday, December 20, 2010

Refreshing a Classic: Soulpepper Theatre Company's A Christmas Carol

Every Christmas, in every major theatre centre around the world, there seems to be a version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol on the boards. On Broadway, you might see Star Trek's Patrick Stewart; on London's West End, any number of accomplished British actor have essayed the role; and five times in the last nine years, the acclaimed theatre company, Soulpepper, has mounted a production in Toronto (this year, it runs until December 30th).

The problem that any adaptor, director or actor doing this work faces is trying to find ways to make it fresh. Thanks to the book, and of course the brilliant Alastair Sim film version from 1951, we all know the material by heart, so it is difficult to have any measure of surprise for the audience. There's also never a need, ever, to warn people about spoilers ahead. Heck, we all know the last line: “God bless us, everyone,” and that it's delivered by Tiny Tim.

John Jarvis & Joseph Ziegler
That director/adaptor Michael Shamata, in the 2010 version at Soulpepper theatre, manages to make this old material fresh again is bit of a revelation. It drags a bit at the start, but once we get beyond that, the production is very satisfying. The theatre (Soulpepper's main stage is a very adaptable space) is set up in an arena configuration, meaning that the stage is in the centre and the seats surround it on all sides. As a result, the sets have to be very minimal and easy for the audience to see through. A long table represents Scrooge's office; a chair and a tall candlestick is Scrooge's bedroom; a trap door and hydraulic lift in the floor is Marley's entrance point; a step ladder on wheels moved by one or two “Harlequins” (Daniel Chapman Smith and Tangara Jones, silent performers, costumed to fit the setting, who use subtle dance movements as they come in, dress or undress the set – it works brilliantly because they fit into the milieu) is how they make Scrooge and various ghosts 'fly'; and then there's the lighting. The arrival and departure of the ghosts is signalled by a gigantic clock face projected onto the floor; real candles are subtly enhanced by the stage lights, etc.

All of this is of a piece. It sets the stage and puts us in the place. Some of the staging choices also manage to bring great emotion into the production. During Scrooge's nocturnal journeys to the past, present and future, he finds himself in the presence of people who knew or loved him. As Scrooge watches as an invisible observer, the other characters talk about him. On one occasion, a character says “if Scrooge was here right now I'd tell him...,” and as they say the line, they turn, walk up to the invisible Scrooge and finish the line while meeting his gaze. This is most effective when the young Scrooge allows the love of his life, Belle, to get away. Belle walks up to the invisible old Scrooge and says her lines directly to him, even though she is addressing the younger version. Her condemnation of him on how he is/will live his life is a wonderful moment where the mistakes of Scrooge's life are writ large.

John Jarvis
Ironically, the problems in this very good production are also connected to the decision to set it in round, because it causes problems for a few of the actors. Some have no problem with the setting. John Jarvis, as the narrator, Marley and all three ghosts are wonderful. Jarvis is one of Toronto's most underrated and least celebrated actors. I've seen him in productions over the years and have always come away impressed. His decisions regarding movement as Marley and the ghosts are inspired (he drags his foot, through, with the toe scrapping the ground as if each step into the mortal realm is a struggle), plus he knows how to project, so regardless of where he is, or what part of the audience he is facing, you can hear every word. His equal on the night is Joseph Ziegler as Scrooge. The pain and regret are beautifully etched into his performance. The biggest obstacle, if not albatross, he faces is Alastair Sim. Sim's 1951 performance is nothing short of a masterpiece (the request for forgiveness he makes to Fred's wife near the end always makes me mist up). His performance is so perfect and so well-known that no matter what an actor does it must be a nightmare to not copy him whether vocally or in movement. Ziegler goes to great lengths to make Scrooge his own, and he generally succeeds, but there was more than one moment when I flashed on Sim.

Alastair Sim as Scrooge
Some of the supporting actors don't fair quite so well. Matthew Edison, as Scrooge's nephew Fred, tries a bit too hard to be the hail-fellow-well-met. Yet, when he plays Scrooge as a young man, and later a debtor, he's fine. The actress playing Belle, Sarah Wilson, is perhaps the most problematic. She's good in the sequence where she breaks with the young Scrooge, but on far too many occasions when she faces other parts of the audience, her voice is basically lost. (I mentioned this the next day to a talented actor friend of mine. His only comment was “she should have known better.”) I generally cannot fault the physicality of her performance, but unfortunately her voice is too weak to carry even in the relatively small space, so as I struggled to hear her, it constantly threw me out of the production. This was also a problem with Bob Cratchit's children, but they're quite young, and are fun to watch, so I assume their abilities will develop in time. (Full disclosure: I've always found the scenes featuring the Cratchit family way too happy/giddy/perfect, even in the Sim version. It's no different here. It's the way that Dickens wrote them, as saintly people, that has always made my teeth ache. As a result, it is very difficult for me to judge how good Oliver Dennis is as Bob, or Deborah Drakeford as the Missus because of my irritation with the very characters.)

At the end (where, in a nice touch, Tiny Tim gets Scrooge to say the famous line), the narrator blows out a candle and the house lights are extinguished. It was a perfect conclusion to a show that, though I liked it a great deal, perhaps I might have loved it more if I was not so familiar with the material.

When we left and walked through the Distillery District along the windy, snow-swept cobblestone streets, surrounded by jiggling Christmas lights and sputtering gas lights, it was as if we were walking for a few moments into Dickens' London. It gave us a chill. I'm not sure whether it was from the cold night, or from the fear that we might be trapped in the harsh and cruel England that Dickens was trying to condemn in A Christmas Carol. Regardless, that too was a perfect ending to a pleasurable evening.

– David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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