A new look linked to old traditions - new costumes, new set, old music and hefty helpings of Christmases past and pre-Christian rituals - make the Virginia Stage Company’s 2011 edition of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol the freshest version of this familiar favorite to hit the Wells Theatre in quite a few years.
Of course, the play is still the tale of miserly Scrooge’s redemption, and the Stage Company retains the same actors as Scrooge, Marley and Bob Cratchit, along with company players, whom Hampton Roads audiences have praised for over half a decade.
This year it’s “out of the attic,” says director Patrick Mullins, referring to his previous staging that framed the narrative with images of a young boy finding a volume of Dickens’ 1843 tale stashed away in his home.
Much as Mullins still likes that previous, relatively literal approach to dramatizing A Christmas Carol, he finds it time to “get the ‘stuff’ out of the way and let the story speak for itself.”
This hardly means that the new scenery or the rest of the show take a bare bones approach. The fronts of houses will slide on and off the stage and there’s a new look all around. “The streets are a little dirtier, and there’s an earthier feeling that the show hooks into,” says Mullins.
The grand Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present are newly costumed, new wigs abound, and a bevy of carolers who perform in the lobby before the show also sing on stage just before curtain time, and then become something of a “Greek chorus” during the show.
It’s an approach chosen to bring the audience into the play and its ritual elements. That’s consistent with Mullins’ expressed affection for theatrical events that “require us all to be in the same room,” and tied directly to primal traditions of theater as ritual, and of winter festivals that merged with Christian worship to form modern Christmas.
Along with that concept of ritual theatre, those twinned traditions of pagan solstice festivals and church centered observances are crucial to Mullins’ approach to the play.
Dickens, primarily through A Christmas Carol, was a prime catalyst, perhaps the main force, for unifying those two parallel strains of winter celebrations into Christmas as we know it. The family feasts and big meals harken back to pre-Christian, essentially rural, death-and-rebirth gatherings of pagan origins. The Church centered Christmas worship services marking the birth of the Christ Child were primarily urban, Mullins says.
Dickens and Christmas came to be so identified with the late December Holiday, Mullins remarks, that that one reference to Dickens’ death in 1870 said that “Father Christmas” had died. (A similar remark was credited at the time to a London street vendor lass: “Will Father Christmas die too?” she worried aloud, upon hearing of the author’s death.)
The festive element of A Christmas Carol is accented by the increasingly important part of music in recent VSC productions, and Mullins will bring more vocal, and more instrumental tunes, to the 2011 version.
More strings, including violin and cello, are heard this year, and there is talk of even a hurdy-gurdy making an appearance. (The rarely heard hurdy-gurdy is sometimes called a “wheel fiddle,” for the rotating, rosin covered disc that rubs its strings, in the place of the bow that sets the strings of a violin vibrating. The hurdy-gurdy’s drone strings, acoustic kin to the drone reeds of a bagpipe, give the instrument something of an exotic sound.)
Mullins mentions music from the Victorian era and before, and maintains that listening to the music separately would take one “on the same emotional journey that the show does.” He talks about “Songs of rebirth and longing for the completion of that process,” for “home and the idea of freedom,” of old wassail songs taken door to door, of Middle English tunes about being born into a world of poverty and travail, and of Irish revels.
He also keeps some of the musical, visual and dramatic novelty for 2011 to himself. “I want there to be some surprises,” he promises.