Christmas is here! That means mince pies and pantos and paper crowns and presents! Lots and lots of presents! Spending money and getting things and STUFF and eating and drinking too much and fun!
And that’s it, right?
Or … maybe there’s a little something more to it.
The little bit more is posited in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” which I try to see at least once a year. Its message, which is, in part, that the poor will (probably) always be among us and that caring for them is actually a duty of being human, is one I find extremely relevant these days. As libertarianism, Ayn Randism, and other isms look out upon the poor and label them “scroungers” who deserve what they get, I can’t help but think this Victorian tale sounds as if it could have been written by a modern day Swift who wants to show us the ugliness underlying our opinions.
It’s hard not to see how these many adaptations have glammed it up and emphasized the ghosts and the noise and fun of this story: but, thankfully, in this production at the Old Red Lion we get a chance to see the story stripped down like an old piece of furniture: the knots and burls, the joins and the texture all brilliantly visible without layers of paint between us and it. We have six actors: a Scrooge (Alexander McMorran, weep that he does not sing more) and five others, and no Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come at all. The actors move fluidly from role to role, with only Scrooge staying the same.
The effect, in this small theater, is quite intense. We are forced to use our imagination, to see snow in tossed paper, coins in clinked chain, and generosity in handfuls of tinsel. It is a very effective Empty Space aesthetic, which comes home to me most painfully in two scenes. The first is the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, which is a puffed up paper bag which the five of them tear to bits; their Christmas pudding is revealed, with great to-do, to be an even tinier paper bag, perhaps the size of a fist. It’s all so pathetic, the desperate scrabblings of a family who almost never get to have meat, and who won’t have more than a teaspoon of pudding each: I couldn’t help but think of that damned Baroness who said just a few days ago that poor people don’t eat well because they don’t know how to cook. Even Scrooge is horrified by just how little the Cratchits have to go around, but at least he’s not blaming their want on poor culinary skills.
Later we come to the scene where Scrooge sees a dead man stripped of his burial garments, to his horror. Normally this is done with Scrooge on the side with the Future Ghost watching a fake corpse in a bed, but in a “do less with more” moment we have Scrooge himself lying on the floor, his trousers and jacket being pulled off of him (he hasn’t been in his nightgown as is usual) by human scavengers who praise each other and vilify the man they are denuding. Scrooge’s paralysis, fright, and horror during this scene are palpable; and to have him end the moment wearing just his long johns physically shows us where Scrooge has come to mentally. His walls of protection, his emblems of status, have been taken from him, and now he is but a man, who must consider who he is in light of how he behaves toward other people. He has discovered not just that he is unloved and unwanted, but that he is a source of misery for others; and, indeed, that by his actions he could become far more than just a person who has put yet a bit more money in the bank. He now wants to create something of real value, something that holds meaning even when you stand alone and nearly naked; and to do this, he must act to care for his fellow man. He has been transformed; and in the 70 tight minutes of this show, it is difficult to imagine how more junk or people could have expressed this better. I can only hope that Baroness Jenkin herself might realize that instead of blaming the poor for their struggles, she should try taking direct action to alleviate poverty: to be a little less Marie Antoinette and a little more “God bless us every one.”
(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on Saturday, December 13th, 2014. It continues through January 3rd.)