Preview feature: The National Theatre of Scotland’s staging of A Christmas Carol

Christmas Spirits

With its first ever festive season show, the National Theatre of Scotland offers a highly original staging of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, writes Mark Brown

“We all know what to expect from a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol”, says Graham McLaren, who is directing a new production of Dickens’s famous novella for the National Theatre of Scotland. “Some grumpy guy, who thinks he should be playing Scrooge, comes on as Jacob Marley with a bandage round his head.”

   McLaren’s production intends to overturn such expectations. Playing at the Film City venue (formerly Govan Town Hall) in Glasgow, it relocates the visions in the mind of the miser Scrooge from his barren bedroom to his austere place of work. “The central idea was, ‘what would happen if, instead of going home to fall asleep, Scrooge fell asleep in his office, a Victorian counting house?’, the director explains.

   The set (a splendid, purpose-built performance space, around which the 90-strong audience will be seated on two sides) makes tremendous sense, not only theatrically (no need for a set change), but also thematically. As McLaren says, Dickens wrote his story out of his revulsion at poverty and inequality. Where better to tell his tale, therefore, than in the very place where Scrooge counts his money?

   “Dickens doesn’t write a Christmas story”, argues the director. “He sets it at Christmas, but it’s a socio-political call for direct action. He’s inspired to write it because of a report on child labour. He’s full of rage. He starts to write a pamphlet, but he realises that a pamphlet won’t be read by the number of people he wants to reach. So, he writes the novella. Yes, it comes out in the same year as Prince Albert introduces the Christmas tree and the Christmas card, which makes it very timely. But it’s a cry for direct action against poverty, and, in particular, child poverty.”

   For McLaren (who also directed the NTS’s excellent recent production of Ena Lamont Stewart’s classic play Men Should Weep), the challenge was to “marry the grotesque world that Dickens evokes with his language and his socio-political comment”. There is, he says, something limiting in the traditional theatrical representation of Scrooge’s visions by means of only human actors on a stage. Which is where puppet theatre maker extraordinaire Gavin Glover comes in.

   “Dickens demands that these creatures [from Scrooge’s visions] walk through walls, that they’re magical”, says McLaren. “Of course, a puppet can do that. You can rip the head off a puppet and still continue the conversation with it. There’s something about the solid nature of the actor which prevents you from properly realising Scrooge’s visions, and the nightmare that ensues.”

   Which is not to say that the piece will not have actors. Scrooge will be played by the fine actor Benny Young, who will be joined by four other actors, who will also perform the puppetry. They will be accompanied by live music, played by acclaimed theatre music composer Jon Beales.

   The intention, McLaren explains, is to create a visual, performative and musical aesthetic which captures the enchantment, horror and socio-political outrage of Dickens’s story. It is, he says, a type of simultaneously magical and political aesthetic which is more common in eastern Europe than in the west.

   One might have expected the first ever Christmas show by the NTS to be a big stage extravaganza. It is to the company’s credit that its inaugural yuletide offering promises, instead, to be such a unique addition to Scottish theatre’s winter fare.

A Christmas Carol is at Film City, Govan, Glasgow from November 30 until December 31.

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This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 20, 2011 

© Mark Brown


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