This festive season the RSC have presented us with a heart-warming and prescient adaption of Dickens’ classic Christmas tale: A Christmas Carol.
What people want are ‘memorable characters with witty emblematic names’ says John Forster, the editor and friend of Charles Dickens, in the opening scene of the play, ‘give them a story […] that will echo through the ages’. Here the familiar tale is framed with its own conception: Dickens is incensed at the social injustice he sees around him in Victorian London and intends to write a pamphlet that will illuminate to the public the hideous realities of their world. We are told of children forced to work as young as four, whose jobs may inflict upon them lifelong injuries, both physical and otherwise. Forster insists that a story will be more effective, and so the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge (nearly ‘Scratch’) is born.
Nicholas Bishop is a compelling Dickens, perfectly capable of commanding the stage as the puppet master of the narrative that unfolds around him. The interesting directorial decision to allow the characters of Dickens and John Forster (Bruce Khan) to remain amidst the action reinforces the original novella’s adherence to the trope of the traditional Victorian Christmas ghost story. The two are at once spectral and earthy spectators, and the tale becomes as much a story told by the fireside as it does a social commentary. ‘Why dress it up as entertainment?’ Dickens asks incredulously – because it forces people to listen.
We are presented with a relatively minimal but highly effective set. Spaces are created by characters dragging door frames around the stage, managing to create the sense of cramped domestic space without walls, flowing as seamlessly as Dickens’ original tale; it is beautifully done. There are moments of breath-taking special effects providing a tasteful sprinkling of Christmas magic provided by Illusionist Ben Hart: keep an eye out for the door becoming a face – I am utterly baffled as to how this was achieved.
like Scrooge, we must feel compelled to really see our fellow beings and bring some of the festive cheer that was felt in The Swan, Straford-Upon-Avon, to the rest of the world
It would be remiss of me to not mention Phil Davis as Scrooge. This is a Scrooge that Dickens could only have dreamed of, he is the embodiment of surliness, whose troubled past is probed by a therapist-like figuring of The Ghost of Christmas Past, who presents him with scenes and asking: ‘and how does that make you feel?’. Davis deftly handles his transformation from miser to repentant good Samaritan.
Rachel Kavanaugh, the Director, has managed to present us with a Dickensian tale that feels as relevant today as it might have done in 1843. Sadly, the sound of the idle rich condemning the idle poor is one that seems all too familiar to a modern audience. The conservative view of the poor continues to be so damning: Jeremy Hunt in 2012 stated that earning for yourself is the first step towards self-respect. This quote is used almost verbatim in the play, just at home in Hunt’s mind as it was with a society that promoted work houses and child labour.
Brigid Zengeni as the bounteous Ghost of Christmas Present is a standout performance, and Jude Muir makes a charming professional debut as the heart-wrenching Tiny-Tim. I remain bewildered, however, by the inclusion to the references of various social media platforms in the names of the characters. ‘Mrs. Snapchat’ and ‘Herr Uber’ seem to be an attempt to emulate Dickens own use of ‘witty, emblematic names’ but here it falls short. There seems to be no real relevance to the use of these names and instead creates a strange anachronistic tone, where it is entirely unnecessary. Sadly, the austerity and bleakness of the times is enough for an audience to draw parallels between Victorian Britain and our own.
This is a play that demands we look at the world around us and really see. Scrooge, perhaps like many of us today, is aware that people suffer but assumes that the blame lies with them, rather than the product of a broken system; that if they rose a little earlier and worked a little harder they could be rich like him. We are still being peddled this lie of neo-liberal ideology. Instead, like Scrooge, we must feel compelled to really see our fellow beings and bring some of the festive cheer that was felt in The Swan, Straford-Upon-Avon, to the rest of the world. This family friendly production is as chilling as a Victorian ghost story ought to be, managing to be both a warning and as warming as a festive night by the fireside.
A Christmas Carol is performing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 4th February 2018, tickets and information here.
Image: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC