Soulpepper’s A Christmas Carol is “pressing, relevant and critical”
You’ve heard of Soulpepper’s A Christmas Carol, yes? Back for its seventh season, Michael Shamata’s adaptation is increasingly part of this city’s holiday furniture: Nutcracker at the National Ballet; a surfeit of Messiahs great and small; a star-billed rock musical in one of the commercial theatres — and over in the Distillery District, they bring out their Dickens.
Nobody seems to have an unkind thing to say about A Christmas Carol: critics and audiences alike are singular in their endorsement, and have been for nearly fifteen years. But isn’t fifteen years an achingly long time? Surely, by now, it’s begun to creak, just a little?
Well, humbug to that.
Key to keeping this production humming is the decision to dual-cast Scrooge, with Soulpepper stalwarts Oliver Dennis and Joseph Ziegler taking alternating performances. On the night MoT attended, with Dennis helming the show, the production takes off in new and unexpected directions, mostly down to Dennis’ talent for finding depth where many actors only modulate. His Scrooge evolves palpably over the course of the evening, and the whole production is richer for it.
“Rich” is, incidentally, the best way to describe it. Soulpepper has pulled out all the stops to tell this ghost story, with designers Julie Fox and John Ferguson heavily emphasizing the theatricality of the experience. I was especially taken in by the decision — and it does feel like a decision, rather than an economy — to cast the bouncy John Jarvis as all four ghosts, each with a unique (and breathtaking) costume, each with a peculiar (and breathtaking) entrance, and each contributing to a whole performance which is much bigger than the sum of its parts.
The cast of fourteen (fourteen!) fill the stage with dance, music, light and movement, using a quartet of young actors to particularly fine effect: when little Zoë Brown stepped out onto the stage and read her first line, I counted at least six people sighing in delight.
And within the adult cast, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by two silent Harlequins, Tangara Jones and Daniel Chapman-Smith, who present themselves as spirits of fantasy and otherworldliness. A childhood digression to the lands of Ali Baba was a highlight of the show for sheer whimsy and visual interest, something which often gets missed in telling this story.
But what really blew me away is the efforts which seem to have gone into making this story chillingly and uncomfortably relevant. It’s easy to read A Christmas Carol as a broad-strokes fable about kindheartedness and Christian charity — but in this time of growing inequality, with greater indebtedness and palpable desperation in our cities, this story of a miserly moneylender who would gladly eat the poor to put them out of their misery comes shockingly close to far too much contemporary political and social rhetoric. When Scrooge talks about sending the unemployed to the workhouses and the treadmills, he’s not miles away from elements in our own culture.
By choosing to subtly emphasize these sharper aspects of the story, director Michael Shamata takes what might be a tasty (if frothy) retelling of a fable and produces something which strikes much nearer to the heart. He understands, and he hopes the audience concludes, that A Christmas Carol is less a seasonal bedtime story and more an admonition. There are politics in this parable, and even if they aren’t front and centre, they’re definitely present.
A Christmas Carol isn’t just outstanding holiday theatre on points alone, as fresh and colourful and vibrant after seven seasons as it’s ever been. Far from a mere recitation, Soulpepper’s production will remind you of the very real importance of the lessons of Ebeneezer Scrooge, at a time when these lessons are pressing, relevant and critical.
- A Christmas Carol plays through January 3rd, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. (Distillery District)
- Showtimes vary widely, see website for performance information.
- Tickets vary in price from $29 to $89, with discounts available for students and families seeing the show together. See website for details.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416.866.8666), or in-person from the box office. NB: many performances are selling out, and advance purchase is strongly advisable.
- Be aware that this production includes use of theatrical smoke and fog effects, as well as strobe lights and sudden sounds and movements.
- Although this venue is accessible, many of the seats are in unusual configurations due to conversion of the venue to a theatre-in-the-round setup. If you have any sort of mobility issue, we recommend you contact the box office directly (416.866.8666) and ask for advice.
Photograph of Oliver Dennis by Cylla von Tiedemann.