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MORE MATTER, LESS ART?

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CHARLES DICKENS PERFORMS A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Director: James Adler
presented by An Eagle’s Nest Theatre, Capital Theatre Productions and Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand

at Old St Paul's, Wellington
21 Nov 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 22 Nov 2012


Do we all know the story? Scrooge has, after all, given his name to mean-spirited, misanthropic miserliness for the past 169 years.

On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge was mean to people in the street, his clerk (Bob Cratchit), his nephew, gentlemen collecting for charity and carol singers. At home alone in bed he was visited by the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, in the metaphorical chains he'd forged for himself. Three visitations followed, from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, allowing Scrooge to recall where he had been, see where it had got him and foresee where he would end up.

Scrooge awoke, a transformed man, and set about celebrating Christmas Day by making it a joy for the Cratchits (anonymously) and his Nephew's family, who welcomed him into their home.  

The title of this Eagle's Nest Theatre production (from Australia) tells us Charles Dickens is presenting his own work in performance. To paraphrase A Christmas Carol's opening sentence, about Jacob Marley, “Charles Dickens was dead: to begin with.” Phil Zachariah brings him alive in much the same way that the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come manifested those who were, are now and may be in the future.

As the Eagle's Nest website states, they “have worked directly from the original prompt copy and eyewitness accounts to create a performance that truly channels the spirit of Dickens.”

Their typo-riddled programme note also reveals that Zachariah and director James Adler have explored the idea that the Narrator is “in some ways like a part of Scrooge, who having been redeemed now sustains his redemption by telling his story to others.” Not that they expect us to necessarily get that, but it has informed their approach.

The show's success has been such, since it opened in 2003, that it now plays annually at Melbourne's Athenaeum Theatre. Its current New Zealand tour (click here for details) follows a season in Shanghai, while The Netherlands, Germany and Shanghai await.

The wide range of venues may well mean the tone of each performance varies but I assume the default mode is, as presented at Old St Pauls last night, one of Victorian theatricality. We are asked to marvel, as the author's own audiences did, at the performer's ability to act the part of each and every character with “a different voice, a different style, a different face” (Cambridge Independent Press, 1859).

And well we might. Zachariah and Adler do deliver an impressive demonstration of Victorian theatricality. But I cannot say I was drawn into the story or moved to examine my own value system – although I do objectively recognise that Scrooge's initial lack of empathy for those less fortunate does remain part of our social fabric today.

The lack of immediacy and subjective involvement may have something to do with the past tense prose text being adhered to. I suppose it is too sacrosanct for them to change, e.g. by committing fully to making the narrator Scrooge himself, in the first person, and having him recreate his experiences in imagined ‘present action'. Yet such shifts are basic when adapting prose works for performance.

Nevertheless Phil Zachariah is impressively adept at adopting physical and vocal characteristics even if, sometimes, I can't see the story for the acting. Is that what happened to sister Nan coming to take him home from boarding school or was that bit cut? And making Bob Cratchit all toothless and hyperactive – a wacky characterisation – somehow robs their story of its poignancy.

Theatre has come a long way in the last-century-and-a-half (although it was four centuries ago that Shakespeare had Gertrude calling for “more matter, less art”). I am not sure that simply recreating the Victorian mode is the most effective way of bringing A Christmas Carol to new generations.

Charles Dickens is reputed to have changed social attitudes with this story, which was published a decade before he ‘performed' it. Given that today's ‘market forces' directly reflect the ‘laissez faire' policies that encouraged the sociopathic attitudes he exposes, I see the challenge of remounting this story now as being to likewise confront prevailing value systems and aim for a similar impact.  

But given the difference between my response and that of Lindsay Clark in Christchurch (see link below), it may well be that Old St Paul's, magnificent in so many ways, is just not conducive to a live performance that seeks to draw us into a subjective, life-changing experience. 
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 Lindsay Clark