The Immortal ‘Carol’
Tradition kept alive at Vienna’s International Theatre
In a misty half-light, Ebenezer Scrooge, harried and miserable, falls to his knees, cowering in front of a black robed spectre. As a man of business, apologies came hard to Scrooge.
“Are these shadows of things that may be?” he asks, in a desperate voice, his words vanishing into the darkness. For the hooded figure – The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – offers no response, and a hush hangs over the audience as Scrooge is left to watch the fate that may be too late to avoid.
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in the icy winter of 1843, in reaction to what he saw as a decline in values. Victorian hearts were hardening in industrial England, and with it the celebration of Christmas. The novella was an instant success, selling six thousand copies in the first week, in a city of just under 2 million.
This tradition is kept alive each year in Vienna at the International Theatre, as its 24th annual staging of the popular tale takes place, this year directed by Jack Babb. This charming production successfully recreates the jollity of the winter season, whilst urging us to recognise that there is no better time to rediscover our social conscience.
Entering the cozy theatre tucked behind Porzellangasse on opening night, the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas swept over the visitors – the musky aroma of candles blended into the melodies of carols floating through the amber light around the bar.
A buzz of expectant chatter filled the foyer. Threads of shimmering tinsel dripped from the framed photos on the wall, memories of years and productions past, darting light across the red programs clutched in every hand. Following the flickering arcs of gold into the theater, there is a moment of darkness and eager silence. Suddenly, voices burst into the rousing cadences of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ as the actors, in cape and cloak, appear onstage.
More than 100 plays have been produced in this intimate setting over the International Theatre’s 18 years. Those quick enough to secure a coveted ticket to A Christmas Carol – which usually sells out every performance till New Year’s – will revisit this famous tale of the ill-tempered, solitary Ebenezer Scrooge whose name has become synonymous with the miser that he was.
Scrooge (Kevin Brock) is visited on Christmas Eve by an apparition of his dead partner Jacob Marley, rattling the chains of his misspent life. Three spirits will appear over the next three days, who will force the miserable Scrooge to confront his past and the effects of his selfishness. After being taken on a journey through time by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, Scrooge is offered an ultimatum – to change his ways or suffer a similar fate.
The resonance of the opening carol is abruptly shattered as Scrooge strides onstage, his grey and black morning suit reflecting his business-like air. As the silenced huddle of carol singers look on, he demands that the audience turn ‘one of those devices that ring or make noise… all the way off’. This is the first interaction of many bandied between stage and audience; finish a comforting sense of collective experience, ending as the spectators join in the final medley before the curtain falls.
However, diversions from the script in other moments sit more uncomfortably with the audience, highlighting the dangers of dovetailing contemporary quips with Dickens’ original script.
In a later scene, the white haired, wizened ghost of Jacob Marley peers at a lonesome Scrooge, ready for bed, through the door of his dingy quarters. On seeing the apparition, Scrooge is told by the narrator to ‘play along’ with ‘the theatrical magic’. Suddenly, the mood curdles, as does the audience’s eagerness to use their own imagination and accept Dickens’ narrative instincts. A later reference to the theatre’s ‘small budget’ to excuse a voice ‘playing the bell’ was equally distracting. Given the good rapport, not to mention the enduring popularity of A Christmas Carol, this material is unnecessary.
Despite minimal resources, the play is far from a rough and ready spectacle. Strong performances are given by all cast members, who occupy multiple roles to good effect. Gloria Sattél and Laura Mitchell’s costume choices capture the spirit with splashes of warm reds and alpine greens as characters drift in and out of Scrooge’s past, present and future.
Dickens wrote the original novella in what he called “staves,” rather than chapters, and attention is duly paid to this musical analogy. Intermittent dancing and singing is nestled in the dialogue and delivered with satisfying zeal. The voices of Caroline Ciglenec and the rich baritone of Ben Maddox – as Martha and Bob Crachitt – ring out with particularly notable strength.
Eric Lomas is particularly fine as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, with perfect timing and gesture that endows the character with a genuine air of benevolence and charm. In the first scene, the smartly dressed and smiling Fred makes a profound offer of friendship to his scowling uncle, saying: ‘I want nothing from you. I ask nothing of you’.
Lomas is equally at ease in the contrasting role of the young Scrooge. As the stage empties to leave him alone with his sweetheart Belle, he defiantly turns his back on her, all feeling visibly drained from his face. He gazes coldly into the audience, and in a stifling silence, ushers their love out of his life. The old Scrooge, returned to his bed, falls crumpled and alone, his heaving chest showing the remorse spilling from the painful choices of his past.
The high-energy theatricality of Kevin Brock is fully equal to this vast role. After we witness Scrooge’s scathing treatment of Fred and his clerk Bob Crachett in the opening, two effusively cheerful charity workers (Marilyn Wallace and Laura Mitchell) wander in, collecting alms for the poor. Scrooge, the shameless miser, gets a laugh, as he demands only to be ‘left alone’.
But in seconds, the mood turns: “Many thousands are in want of common necessities, hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.” He is unmoved. Turning to the charity worker with an acid glare, Scrooge snaps that the plight of the poor is ‘not my business’.
With perfect timing, Brock captures with great vividness the central concern of Dickens’ work: the neglect of the underprivileged by the prosperous and the powerful.
“Are there no work houses?” Scrooge booms, revealing a complete disconnect from the ugly realities of urban life. An appalled silence hangs over the room. It makes you wonder if things will ever change.