Monday, December 29, 2014

A Christmas Carol

Photo by by Brett Boardman
Belvoir presents, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, adapted by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, in The Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 8 November - 24 December.

In the United States, where I have spent many a Christmas, the two perennial theatre offers were the Tchaikovsky two-act ballet, THE NUTCRACKER, at the Opera House, and a play adaption of Charles Dickens', A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I have seen several different versions of the Dickens novella staged, and the two at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), in San Francisco, umpteen times - it has become a cultural tradition at the ACT, with generations of family going every year - it is a certain box-office bonanza for that company. The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, is this year, presenting it for the fortieth consecutive year!

There are many film versions: the 1951, SCROOGE (known in the USA as, A CHRISTMAS CAROL) with Alastair Sims, regarded as the best, by many; the Jim Carrey/Disney version (2OO9), a respectable alternative; while we can choose as well to watch with the assistance of our new media technologies: A JETSON CHRISTMAS (1985), BLACKADDER'S CHRISTMAS (1988), THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992), with Michael Caine as Scrooge, a SESAME STREET, CHRISTMAS CAROL (2006), with Oscar the Grouch, as Scrooge, a DOCTOR WHO: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2010), and another starring THE SMURFS (2013). Of course, knowing a hit-cult figure, Walt Disney, created Donald Duck's irascible Uncle Scrooge, with the traits of the Dickens' hero hilariously promulgated and thwarted; and the Looney Tune creators have two versions of their own, one of them starring Yosemite Sam as Scrooge! The first filmed version goes back to SCROOGE, or MARLEY'S GHOST, filmed in Great Britain in 1901. Someone out there loves this story, no matter who is telling it and how - there is even a recent fashionable Zombie themed version!

Written in 1843 by Charles Dickens, in only six weeks, and sell published, it is a work that strikes the sentiments of all who engage with it. It has become the favourite Christmas story for over 171 years.

It is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Robert Menzies), a successful but miserly London business man, who after a typical day of practising an acquired skill of anti-social capitalism to all and sundry, stranger and family, is haunted on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his long deceased partner-in-business, Jacob Marley (Peter Carroll), who has been condemned to drag the heavy chains of 'his crimes', for all time. Marley gives warning to Scrooge that this, too, will be his fate, unless he heeds the scenes that the Ghost of Christmas Past (Ivan Donato), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kate Box), and the Ghost of Christmas Future will show him.

Biographer, Peter Ackroyd, suggests that, as a result of childhood sufferings, Dickens had a preoccupation with money and it was…
only in fiction such as A CHRISTMAS CAROL that it came to the fore. Miserliness as vice. Generosity as virtue. How people obtain money. How people exert power over others because of money. How money can be an aspect of cruelty. How money can destroy a family. How the want of money is oppressive. How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation. And, central to A CHRISTMAS CAROL, how the experiences of childhood can lead ineluctably to miserliness itself. [1]
Co-adaptor Benedict Hardie, says:
At the centre of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a man who has suffered neglect, failed at love, sought to avoid pain, and hardened into an indelible archetype. We tend to think of Ebenezer Scrooge in his capacity as miser par excellence and nothing more, but the full story encourages us to understand his journey; how he became who he is, and the obstacles he needs to overcome to attain salvation. [2]
Belvoir has succeeded well with this production. It is blessed with a casting of eight actors with an exuberance and empathy to tell this story - a more perfect set of actors to create this telling of the story to be a joyous and tear inducing experience would be hard to find: Kate Box, Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, Robert Menzies, Steve Rogers, Miranda Tapsell, and Ursula Yovich. I understand that they have had a genuine contribution in the fashioning of this text and production, finding themselves inspired directly from the original novella, which they returned to during rehearsals, more often than not. Anne-Louise Sarks, Director and co-adaptor, tells us of their "generosity and humour." It shows, glowingly.

Mr Menzies, as Scrooge, creates a character of experiential truth throughout the arc of the journey of the story, and captures the pathos beating in the Dickensian original, for our stage, with real insight and ownership - have I seen him better? Not for some time, I reckon. It is a totally winning performance. Ms Box is the most joyous, warm hearted, innocent and rambunctiously witty Ghost of Christmas Present that you will probably ever see. A blithe spirit indeed, at one stage, scoffing as much food as possible at the Cratchit Christmas table invisibly, and unnoticed by all, but us, for our amusement - assisted, by the way, with a wonderful cheeky costume by Mel Page. Whilst, Steve Rodgers serves up an immaculate Bob Crachit, capturing his basic human goodness and patient good humour, under stress at the office with Scrooge, and in his joy with his family: wife, children,and especially with sickly but 'divine', Tiny Tim (Ms Tapsell).

The eight actors people the entire play population impeccably, with multiple role playing, incorporating miraculous costume changes, that become a subliminal source of extra wonder for those of us who know more about the technicalities of production than others in the beguiled audience. The hard work of the performance tasks in this production are hidden in the benign presence, from all, of wanting to share the Christmas spirit of this tale with all of us. "God Bless Us, Every One!"

The Set Design, by Michael Hankin, a black raked raised floor, with a central oblong floor piece that raises to be a bed, falls to be a grave, surrounded by other trapdoors that reveal surprise after surprise, with a seeming never ending fall of snow, is a 'magic' conception. Whilst the Costuming by Mel Page in quasi-contemporary inspirations, give an impression of all times, gloriously imagined and 'miraculously' constructed for the ease of the company in its many duties. The Lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne, has narrative sense and beautiful effects. Much of the belief systems triggered in us for this production has been wrapped in the Sound Composition and Design by Stefan Gregory.

Ms Sarks and her team have achieved much to please us. The ensemble have created and play within a deep respect for  the original work and its social environs and conventions, speaking in a contemporary Australian-English that never draws attention to its adaptive choices. As well, the actors shy not away from the sentiment of the characters and the events of the story: the belief in the supernatural is not 'camped-up', the human frailties and joys not overtipped into sentimentality - it all has the appearance of truths brusquely embraced with an open sense of affectionate humour with no actorly or directed self-indulgence or comment. This production, maybe, was the best experience of this story that I have ever had.

The Belvoir foyer and Upstairs Theatre had the buzz, feel, of an excited and rapturous audience, that, for me, recalled days of yore, when this company was, always, a reason to love theatre as a craft and art. The return to form by the Belvoir Company with a uniquely Australian production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL was a very welcome Christmas gift. More of this and one may excuse, perhaps, Ms Sarks for her NORA, earlier this year.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL was, indeed, a memorable thing. I hope you, too, saw it.


  1. DICKENS by Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
  2. A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Belvoir Program.

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