REVIEW: ‘A Christmas Carol’, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC

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 ‘A Christmas Carol’, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC

  RSC audiences have every reason to be merry this Christmas with the return of Charles Dickens‘ classic, ‘A Christmas Carol’. Quite possibly one of the most famous literary examples of the inability of money to secure happiness, this delightful production highlights the true meaning of Christmas, celebrating the richness of those who may not possess much in a monetary sense but, in ways that prove infinitely more important, want for nothing.

  Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, the production places a focus on Dickens himself – a notable character throughout – on his humanity, and on his fight for social reform, shedding light on the plight of the poor, and the unequal distribution of wealth. Above all, however, this is an uplifting tale of hope and redemption, a tale celebrating the triumph of mercy, compassion, empathy, feeling and understanding, over ignorance and want.

   Returning by popular demand after a successful run at the RSC last year, “with Christmas cheer enough for everyone”, the production once more invites audiences to revel in “untold joys”. 

  The play begins with Joseph Timms passionate Charles Dickens writing a pamphlet, campaigning for social reform, paying particular heed to “the physical and moral condition of the children”, and the horrific working conditions they were forced to endure. At the suggestion of friend John Forster (Beruce Khan) Dickens begins to write a story – the story we all know and love. The story of general miser and all round humbug, Mr Ebenezer Scrooge.

Joseph Timms (Charles Dickens) in A Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  Over the course of the production, Scrooge is visited by three spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – who show him the shadows of the things that have been, the things that are, and the things that could be, all in the hope that he might turn aside from his miserable, unfeeling ways, before it is too late.

  Aden Gillett’s Scrooge certainly begins as the stereotypical miser, a lover of money, a cold and unfeeling man. When we are first introduced to him, we see him refuse to offer clemency to a female debtor that seeks an extension of her loan. Newborn baby in arms, the lady pleads with Scrooge, but to no avail – she must pay what she owes, doing so on Christmas Day. Scrooge refuses to give to charity, instead telling the two gentlewomen collecting that, if the workhouses are not fit to house any more of the poor, they had better die, “and decrease the surplus population”. He is even reluctant to allow his clerk Bob Cratchit (Gerard Carey) to have Christmas day off.

  After returning to his childhood with the Ghost of Christmas Past, walking the streets of London with the Ghost of Christmas Present, and being shown the world with him and Tiny Tim (a crutch without an owner propped against an empty bed) no longer in it by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge moves from an initial state of self-pity, to a genuine, heartfelt concern for the welfare of others, as Gillett skilfully displays a visible transformation.

Aden Gillett (Scrooge) in A Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  At what is presented as the end of the play, Scrooge lays down on his bed, which is lowered below the stage, as he believes it is too late to change his course. However, as Forster suitably tells Dickens, “you can’t end a Christmas story with a corpse!”. As Scrooge’s bed is raised back up again, setting the character in place for his redemption, we are reminded that it is never to late to have a change of heart, and all is not done for as easily as one might think. At this second chance, Scrooge gleefully declares himself to be “happy as an angel, merry as a child”, and such merriment is shared by each and every one in the audience.

  Scrooge shouts to a child below, now literally throwing his money at her, and requests she go straight to the shops to buy several items, including a prize turkey, which he sends to the Cratchits’ house. Interacting now with Dickens, who hands him his cane, and puts on his hat and coat, Scrooge tosses Dickens a shilling, inviting him, with just a little hesitancy, and to great comic effect, to “keep the change”. Scrooge then gives a cheque, after Dickens twice increases the amount, to the two gentlewomen he refused to offer charity to at the start of the production, the money “to combat ignorance and want”. Scrooge wishes everyone he meets a Merry Christmas, he gives money to a beggar woman, he visits his nephew Fred and congratulates him on the imminent birth of his child, much to the hilarious general confusion of the other guests, who demand to know “what’s going on?!”.

  The following day, Scrooge tears up the debt of the lady we saw him extend no compassion towards earlier, before giving Bob Cratchit a bonus, and a raise, even making arrangements for Tiny Tim to spend time in the country to recover, at his expense, giving Bob a Christmas card for Tim. This is not, however, until Bob finally tells Scrooge exactly what he thinks of him, going so far as to say to Scrooge, “you can stuff your job in sage and onion and serve it with a ‘tata on the side!”, before tentatively returning, in a state of utter disbelief, seeking confirmation of this supposed pay rise. 

  Indeed, throughout his life, Scrooge “wasted not, but wanted”. He “did not recognise the world, its compassion, or his need for both”. Until now. Now, he shines all the brighter, all the happier, for it. 

Aden Gillett (Scrooge) in A Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  Dickens’ narrative is woven throughout the production, and we learn a little of his own background – of his difficult childhood, of his father being placed in debtor’s prison when Dickens was a mere boy of 12, and of his being placed in a warehouse, toiling for hours on end sticking labels to jars of shoe polish. It’s possible that such firsthand experience of the terrible conditions endured by the poor appealed to Dickens’ humanity – and such shared griefs resulted in this relatability, that in turn sparked the writer’s empathy, inspiring him to give voice to these souls. The production gives voice to the secret agony of Dickens’ own soul, and in so doing, gives voice to his characters, and to the many men, women and children his characters were based on. In a production bursting with humanity, the humanity of the author shines through.  

  In a play in which the very purpose is “dissecting the humbug of the world”, this production highlights, exploits, and most importantly of all, overcomes, all things humbug. With Dickens himself against dressing truth up for “entertainment” and, as entertaining as this show is, the production doesn’t shy away from echoing the writer’s fight for social reform, from his exposing of oppression, misery and want. The audience is made to see, and subsequently to feel, for these characters, and we too, like Dickens, begin to question the way the world works.

  The redemption of Scrooge, and the good that follows, gives us hope for the promise of a greater redemption – redemption on a universal scale, the redemption of mankind. For, “if Ebenezer Scrooge can change, so can we all”. It is not too late, it is never too late, for a person, a group of people, even the world, to change its ways before it is too late. To undergo a global transformation, to forgo ignorance, want, oppression and inequality, and, much like this show, to choose instead to make an appeal for ‘love and peace’, for ‘kindness, warmth and generosity’. Given the state of the world we are living in today, such change would surely be welcome. 

  The notions of ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ are referenced frequently in the production, with Scrooge trapped in a paradoxical cycle of not doing either, and therefore not able to do either. He was not seeing, so he could not feel. He was not feeling, so he could not see. He was ignorant, and wanted for more than he knew. A reflection on his past, and foreshadow of his possible future, broke this cycle, visibly affecting this once unfeeling man, moving him, occasionally to the point of tears. Made to see, he was then capable of feeling. And made to feel, he became able to see. Scrooge began to see himself in others, in the hundreds and the thousands, and this allows him to feel what they are feeling, giving way to empathy, compassion and – as we see at the end of the production, where he tears up the debt of one of his debtors – mercy.

Gerard Carey (Bob Cratchit) and the cast of A Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  The company pulls out all the stops to ensure this show is one the whole family will love, using everything at their disposal to capture the magic of Christmas in this festive tale. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design brilliantly recreates the cobbled streets of Victorian London at Christmas time, which comes alive with the bustle of its inhabitants going about their day – children running joyfully with sledges, pedlars stopping with their carts to sell hot chestnuts – the set is one brimming with the everyday movement of city life, the archway hanging over the top of the stage reminding us that this is a time of industrial revolution, and with it, great social change. Alongside Tim Mitchell’s lighting, Catherine Jayes‘ music and Fergus O’Hare’s sound, one begins to image the landscapes, soundscapes, even the smells, of these London streets. Ben Hart’s illusions bring a touch of magic to this enchanting production. 

  The RSC demonstrate once more their skill in delivering a story which echoes down the ages, making clear the fact that this is a production for everybody – for all the Tims, for the hundred and the thousands. A play full of warmth, heart and feeling, this production champions such things as kindness, mercy, compassion, empathy, understanding, humanity, and redemption. Indeed, the RSC honours the very meaning of Christmas in it’s heart, igniting in us a profound respect for past, present and future.

  Whether the atmosphere on stage is one laden down with sadness, melancholy, grief, poverty, illness and death, or raised up by love, friendship and family, this production is alive with the beating heart of humanity, of a wretched mankind redeemed only by its ability to show love, mercy and compassion – by an ability to see, to understand, and most importantly of all, to feel. To collectively look back at the shadows of things that have been, to become united, bound together, by memories of shared griefs, and together, to look to the future, to make positive, lasting change. Change for the better, for the equal benefit of all, for the hundreds and the thousands, in order that the world might spin a little faster, resulting in a future that might shine a little brighter for all.

The cast of A Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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