Growing up, Christmas for me was a schizophrenic time. On the one hand, there was time-off school, a sudden surge of treats, and plenty of gifts. On the other hand, school was always a welcome refuge from my house and family, screaming-matches were inevitable, and the gifts were always used to coerce.
As a result, my favorite Christmas moments were in the late-quiet-dark, lying with a purring cat, watching the Christmas lights on the trees or classic Christmas movies on TV.
I’m a sucker for all the classic Christmas films, but my favorite is A Christmas Carol — in particular, the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim in the title role (Click here for the opening scene on Youtube). It is a wonderfully spooky — at times scary — mix of ghosts and redemption which successfully channels the pagan roots of Dicken’s wholesale reinvention of the Christian festival. It is, I think, the version by which all others are judged.
It is no easy task to adapt for theatre a text which has received such an iconic and culturally-pervasive cinematic interpretation. Any serious contemporary adaptation of A Christmas Carol for the stage is always going to be caught between the rock of cinematic homage and the hard place of “for-its-own-sake” iconoclasm.
The National Art Centre’s first ever production of A Christmas Carol, featuring the recently reinstated National Acting Company, is a capable production that avoids the pitfalls of self-indulgent iconoclasm but does not fully escape the cultural shadow of the 1951 movie.
By my eye and ear, the production draws too heavily on the cinematic choices made by screenwriter Noel Langley and director Brian Desmond Hurst in their 1951 movie. The overall aesthetic, dialogue, and scene selection seems to owe much to that iconic movie and these choices do not often work on stage. In particular, the lighting design is far too dark.
There are, of course, a number of moments which don’t have any obvious connection to the iconic movie but they don’t do much to illuminate the characters or drive the narrative. There is some lovely singing, some evocative choral work, some impressive on-stage pyrotechnics (literally and figuratively), and even a dance number but, from a narrative perspective, they stall rather than advance the action.
As a result, we learn much less about the principal characters and the overall production feels a little impressionistic and truncated. People familiar with the story will get all their A Christmas Carol hits (e.g. “Bah humbug”, “God bless us everyone,” and an over-the-top Ghost of Christmas Present) but it may not resonate as soundly for people unfamiliar with the story or film — recent immigrants for example.
Fortunately, for many of us of a certain age who grew up in Canada or the U.S., Dickens’s story and the 1951 movie are so embedded in our cultural consciousness that an impressionistic version of the story still resonates.
On more than one occasion, the ensemble, featuring Stephen Ouimette’s conservative but satisfying Scrooge, channel the cultural ghosts of our shared history with A Christmas Carol, and the story comes alive. If more time and energy had been focussed on the characters and the story, I think this production might have done more than channel ghosts; it might have fully brought to life a truly wonderful story.
Any other diehard fans of the 1951 A Christmas Carol out there? If not, what’s your favorite Christmas story, film, play, or production?