A Christmas Carol

1 Dec

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the best known characters in literature, and his catch phrase “Bah humbug” is oft quoted. (Especially by me when assaulted by Xmas muzak in shopping centres.)

It’s an absolute joy to watch John Bell in this role, and the pantomime-like retelling of Dickens’ famous tale by writer Hilary Bell and director Damien Ryan is delightful.

Dickens was one of those great nineteenth century writers who gave cruelty a bad name. If that seems a joke, as if cruelty could ever have been valorised, it’s indicative of how influential voices like Dickens have been. For much of our history, cruelty has not only been tolerated, it’s been encouraged. (Spare the rod and spoil the child was not the injunction of some sick sadists, or not only so: it was read from the Bible and taught from the pulpit.)  

Dickens had a gift for empathy. It’s suggested by his take on damnation. Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, returns on Christmas Eve to warn of what awaits beyond the grave: an eternal vision of human suffering but no ability to intervene. It’s an odd vision of Hell. Compare it to Sartre’s. A cynic might say that to witness suffering and to do nothing is the very definition of secular heaven, a paradise the privileged enjoy perpetually.

What happens to Scrooge – that the visions he’s shown by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future affect a change in his character –  epitomises Dickens’ artistic purpose. If Scrooge’s moral transformation seems merely convenient to the cynic, Dickens might well look down on us and humbly suggest such visions do indeed make a difference. And clearly, by his own definition, he’s in Heaven, because if he is witnessing the suffering we inflict on each other, his stories, and this particular dramatization, do have the ability to intervene. They gently urge kindness.

And Dickens’ stories brim with good will. There are villains, of course, but there are also an extraordinary number of kind souls. (The cynic would say Dickens was a great writer of fiction.) The conceit of this production is that it’s performed by the Crummles, that inept but good-hearted acting troupe from Nicholas Nickleby.  

Part of the fascination of A Christmas Carol is its role in our image of the holiday. Christmas had long been built on solstice feasting but, in an increasingly secularised Victorian England, the day began to shed those other elements that made it a religious festival honouring the supposed incarnation of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth, and morphed into what it has become in the modern West – the day we wish each other well. (Good will to all was Dickens’ every day; we have at least gifted him Christmas.)

Dickens was endlessly comically inventive, and Ryan’s production captures this glorious exuberance. With Bell on stage is a terrific troupe, much more gifted than the Crummles. Valerie Bader, Jay James-Moody, Emily McKnight, Anthony Taufa, and Daryl Wallis on keyboard, give playful performances that evoke both laughter and tears. There’s song, dance, and puppetry.

And there’s one moment between Bell and a puppet (expertly given life by McKnight) that elicits gasps from the audience. You might call it the sound of hearts melting. Or you might call me sentimental. Dickens wouldn’t.

Paul Gilchrist

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Hilary Bell

Ensemble Theatre until 29 Dec

www.ensemble.com.au/shows/a-christmas-carol/

Image by Jaimi Joy

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