Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Christmas Carol – Soulpepper

I have always liked Charles Dickens. In addition to great stories, he really wrote for the reader, with a wit very evident today and a gift for hyperbole and exaggeration that matches my own. With this and Oprah recently picking A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations as her book club selections, I couldn’t wait to see a classic version of A Christmas Carol on my birthday.

I had a couple of reservations going in, the seats had been expensive and what newness could be brought to a story I had seen 1,000 times before, performed by The Muppets or Bill Murray. But after the Star’s fantastic 4 star review, I couldn’t wait.

The play was mesmerizing. Performed in the round, with the stage in the middle and the audience on each side, every seat was in the middle of the action. This more traditional re-telling included elements I had never seen, like a lively dance intermission during Christmas past, and fantastic costumes like long flowing velvet robes for the ghosts and short pants with stockings for the young men.

The first hour before intermission went by in 5 minutes. Scrooge looks on with wonder at the forgotten aspects of his life in Christmas past, occasionally instructing his past self with commands made in vain to change, and we watch too, mesmerized. This device of the character watching the events of the past unfold, unable to change them, while we watch too is brilliance, and with Joseph Ziegler as Scrooge, we see every nuance of emotion is his pained face. His performance is amazing, he checks any sense of his self at the door and becomes Scrooge, not the cartoon character, but a fully fleshed out man reflecting on his life.

This was the first time I saw Scrooge as human, not a caricature, and I was able to indentify with him at certain moments. When Scrooge is asked for money to help the poor celebrate the holidays, he protests, saying he already funds the shelters and the work houses, what else do these people want? An echo of words I have used myself.

This play made me re-think the concept of charity. In modern times charity has become such a business, it’s easy to be cynical. You have to read between the lines of every ask. For example, the Canadian Stage Theatre Company called me for money early this week, saying tickets sales only account for 50% of their budget and they need to make up the short fall. But if you look closer, you’ll see tickets sales cover the productions, the other 50% of their budget is outreach, free theatre for schools, book clubs, paid apprenticeships, and other things that are nice to have, but not strictly necessary. If for example 100% of their budget was suddenly covered, they would simply increase the budget, come up with new outreach programs, and call me again to ask for money to support them. There is no end, no enough.

As a consequence of this, it’s hard to know what to support, and easy to lose sight of true priorities when you’re called 3 times a week for donations. The tendency when the phone rings is to say “Humbug!” and quickly hang up, and this play re-affirms the need to keep vigilant, that there is still need out there if you look for it, not just an endless sea of wants.

The other aspect that moved me is how easily Scrooge turned his back on his friends and family, and also how easily they welcomed him back. This also hit close to home, it’s too easy in these busy times to focus on your own game and temporarily forget the benefit gained by social relationships.

I’ve gone a little off topic, but I have to say Matthew Edison as Scrooge’s nephew and also Scrooge as a young man was fantastic as well, and I loved his period dress. I last saw Matthew as the lead in Loot, also at Soulpepper.

As Scrooge’s nephew says in the play, Christmas is “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”. In the age of adding arsenic to children’s candy to make it shine brighter, and bleach to bread to make it whiter, this sentiment must have seemed radical, and in a great example of how when things change so much, they change so little, it still kind of is.

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