A Christmas Carol
In the beginning was the word. Before all the movies, television adaptations, and stage plays; before the animated versions, the children's theatre versions, and every sitcom's "holiday episode"; before all of this, Charles Dickens wrote a short story called "A Christmas Carol." There is nothing wrong with adapting the story for new generations, but over 150 years of adaptations, the original text has been nearly buried beneath them. There is hardly a person alive who doesn't know the plot of "A Christmas Carol" or the meaning of the name Scrooge. But most people know these things from familiarity with a stage, screen, or television version; few actually know it through Dickens's text.
Patrick Stewart's one-man performance of A Christmas Carol honors and revels in the original text. Stewart does not merely play all of the characters in an otherwise standard stage adaptation of the tale. He also narrates the story, in which capacity he retains large sections of Dickens's text. It is truly the best of both worlds. Not only are we treated to Stewart's portrayal of the bitter, lonely Scrooge, but we also get Dickens's description of Scrooge as "solitary as an oyster." In addition to Stewart's adorable depiction of the excited Cratchit children at Christmas dinner, we are told that they were "steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows." Nothing can tell Dickens's story quite like Dickens's own words, and their inclusion in Stewart's adaptation brings legitimacy back to a story that has, of late, become a caricature of itself.
Stewart's characterizations are enhanced by the narration, and vice-versa. While Stewart always draws clear distinctions between his characters, the lines between his omniscient narrator and the characters are purposely blurred. Thus, Stewart can begin a short passage describing Scrooge's darkened staircase from a purely objective point of view, but by the time he reaches the line, "darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it," he is speaking in Scrooge's voice, with all the intensity of Scrooge's tightfistedness. Later, when Stewart uses Dickens's narration to describe the images from Scrooge's past that "fell upon [his] heart," his voice is filled with the regret in that heart. This production's best moments live in the hazy space that is half narration and half character, when Stewart gives voice to Dickens's eloquent descriptions of Scrooge's unspoken thoughts while simultaneously portraying Scrooge thinking them.
This is not to say that this A Christmas Carol is overly-dramatic and sentimental. Far from it, the production has a surprising amount of humor, both from Dickens's arch descriptions and Stewart's playing fast and loose with the fourth wall. When Stewart is shaking his head in disappointment at Scrooge's selfishness, snoring loudly as Scrooge sleeps between ghostly visitations, or clanging out the "ga-doing" of the clock bell, Stewart is finding laughs in unlikely places.
But when it isn't touching, and it isn't funny, the production is joyous. There is joy in Scrooge's Christmas past at Fezziwig's, joy in the Cratchits' small but sufficient Christmas dinner, and joy in Scrooge's ultimate transformation. And the latter isn't confined to the joy of rediscovering the Christmas spirit, but extends to the joy of simply being alive. And for theatre-lovers, there is the joy of watching a talented and accomplished actor rediscover the original text of a well-known classic, and bring it beautifully to life.
The two Los Angeles performances are preliminary to a one-week run in New York. Stewart has not performed his adaptation in some time, and the first night was a little rough around the edges as he tripped over some words, and the lighting cues were not as crisp as they could have been. But even with these minor stumbles, this production is stunning. Stewart has returned to the source, and rediscovered the voice that most adaptations of A Christmas Carol lack. It is the best Christmas present a theatre lover could ask for.
Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Adapted and Staged by Patrick Stewart; Executive Producer Kate Elliott; Lighting by Fred Allen.
A Christmas Carol played December 15 and 16, 2001 at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University, Los Angeles.