By BRUCE DENNILL
A Christmas Carol / Directed by Elizma Badenhorst / Studio, Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 8
Charles Dickens’ classic is a difficult tale to tell on stage, as much for the language used – not particularly complex, but not entirely accessible in contemporary terms either – as the challenges presented by the regular appearance of ghosts, the representation of a crippled child, the changing of contexts and the other aspects of the story.
An effective interpretation requires a great deal of imagination, and director Elizma Badenhorst has no shortage of that. It’s perhaps even more necessary than usual given the constraints of the tiny Studio stage, but Badenhorst and her small cast – just Jason Ralph as Ebenezer Scrooge and Naret Loots as everyone else (including as prop mover and puppeteer) – make the most of the space, helped by a number of innovative touches.
The impact of the original writing is maintained via a voiceover that gives the piece a consistent flow while also challenging the actors to hit their marks precisely in order to fill the gaps between narrated segments. Scrooge always delivers his own dialogue, but Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Fred and the ghosts are portrayed by a mute Loots, mouthing the words in a rough, stylised way.
The interplay between the largely traditional and more inventive aspects of the piece takes a little getting used to, but once the rhythm is established – Loots popping on and off stage to don a new bit of a costume or move a screen into place for a projection of another character; Ralph holding everything together as Scrooge goes from bitter to baffled and then big-hearted – it’s not only easy to follow, but gratifying to discover each new ingenious device as it is revealed.
Ralph is superbly focused as history’s most famous miser, being thoroughly believable in each stage of his transformation from sceptic to softy. Indeed, that process is better handled here, in terms of the script, the acting and the direction, than any stage version in the recent past.
There are necessary tricks – the shining of stage lights directly into the audience’s eyes to allow Loots and Ralph to re-arrange items on the stage without being seen during the quick scene changes – that might vaguely annoy some audience members, but given the structure of the theatre and the lack of a curtain (which would have taken too long to close and re-open regardless), this is in keeping with the smart, smooth technical choices that keep the play ticking over.
The excellence of the visual storytelling is one thing, but perhaps the greater mark of this production’s success is that you leave the theatre inspired – as Scrooge was – to love and to give and to celebrate the eternal value of such notions. In a society as distracted and derisive as contemporary Johannesburg, that’s saying something – Badenhorst even gets the audience to sing along to a couple of Christmas carols as part of the action!
This new adaptation will remain fresh for years to come and can be tailored, given its clever structure, for a wide range of venues and environments.