RSC’s A Christmas Carol revival is a tale for our times - with references to Boris and much more!
And that, I deduce, is the thinking behind director Rachel Kavanaugh’s fantastic production, with stunning design by Steven Brimson Lewis. It is a brilliant mix of history, message and politics, combined with spectacle, magic and thrill in a wonderfully entertaining seasonal play.
There could have been few in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre who did not join the dots between A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens in 1843, and Britain’s looming winter as the working classes struggle to make ends meet after 12 years of austerity.
To explain Dickens’ mindset at the time, playwright David Edgar has adapted this version of A Christmas Carol to include the subject’s genesis – the 1842 Report of the Children’s Employment Commission revealing, through descriptions by children as young as five, the brutal reality of child labour at that time, deeply shocking early Victorian society.
In doing so David Edgar has the play introduced on stage, discussed and devised throughout the production by Dickens (Gavin Fowler) and his editor John Forster (Beruce Khan), who persuaded Dickens not to write the political tract he proposed, but instead to illuminate the situation more digestibly in a novel.
Most of us have seen films or plays that stick rigidly to the Dickens text but in this production, David Edgar adapts the conversation for a 21st century audience.
Illusion and trickery are used throughout, from the pathetic fire in the counting house, to Scrooge’s door knocker, the appearance of the Ghost of Marley (Giles Taylor) feet first through Scrooge’s bed, the snow falling in London, the magic carpet ride across the city and the shocking entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
There is plenty of wonderful music, dancing and merry-making alongside the harsh reality of abandonment, stark poverty, grief and disability as the huge gulf between rich and poor is acted out before us.
Adrian Edmondson as Scrooge is the lynchpin between members of a huge cast. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebecca Lacey) is his therapist – asking him how he feels about seeing the boy Ebeneezer, left at school while others returned home for the Christmas holidays. Scrooge learns to pity his young self and to regret the loss of love in his life – he even holds up mistletoe in a vain bid to rescue the doomed union between himself and his fiancee.
With a glimmer of empathy now in his heart Scrooge accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Present (Sunetra Sarker) to Bob Cratchit’s festive dinner table and is forced to realise the privations of a poor family, who, unable to buy the treatment needed to enable their disabled son’s survival, try to resist imagining life without him.
The austerity politics of 2022 rear their head in scene after scene. During a Yes-No parlour game at nephew Fred’s house the questions include ‘is he a growly, undomesticated, unkempt, unruly human who lives in London?’, and Scrooge asks ‘was he recently Prime Minister?’.
David Edgar’s script produces challenges that could apply to almost any person in 21st century Britain, struggling to afford the bare necessities, as characters in the play quiz a man as wealthy and careless as Scrooge, about whether he can possibly understand what it feels like to have nothing and see no hope in the future.
The staging, lighting and special effects of this production give us everything the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and its company have to offer. This is world class theatre, doing what The Arts must do – to question, accuse and encourage – and to give motivation for improvement to create a fair life for everyone in society, no matter their status.
A Christmas Carol is a production that is fully inclusive with many child actors, four sharing the role of Tiny Tim – each of whom has disabilities.
The finale in which Scrooge is fast forwarded to the results of his new-found understanding, altruism and generosity is very moving. One wishes this were a tincture that could be smuggled into the water bottles of Westminster.
A Christmas Carol runs until January 1, 2023