1843, it’s snowy in London. The ruts from the cart wheels have made a muddy slush of the fresh white snowfall. Charles Dickens has just published the tale of hope and morals that is A Christmas Carol, a book so well received by the general public that Dickens was not only credited (incorrectly so) with the introduction of Christmas as we know it, but also (more correctly) with the improved working conditions in the workhouses. To this day, we still tell and re-tell the story whether it be in the Muppets, Jim Carey’s dubious adaption, or indeed you could go and see it in the run up to Christmas this year in the Charles Dickens Museum where Equapoise Theatre have again taken up the mantle of performing it for your seasonal sprinkle of Dickens.
It wasn’t your typical Dickensian December day when I set out to the Charles Dickens Museum where I was lucky enough to nab an EXCLUSIVE interview with the directors of the company and the show, Laura Donnelly and Eleri Jones, rather it was warm enough for me to unbutton my jacket and take my hat off altogether. Tiny Tim would have been jealous. Both Laura and Eleri were in high spirits on a break from rehearsing and we sat down with a cup of coffee in the boardroom and got right to it.
Moz: This is your second year in the Charles Dickens House isn’t it? I’m just wondering how was it that Equapoise came to be involved last year?
Eleri: My old lecturer from Drama Centre was in touch with the education manager of the museum and she got in touch with him and said did you know anybody, any sort of young theatre companies or anybody who’s looking for an opportunity to work over Christmas. As he had just been to see our debut production in the September and this was sort of October time we were fresh in his mind, so he recommended us to her. And we just set up a meeting and went from there. And they’ve asked us back this year which was very nice as well.
Moz: That’s really excellent to be called back, but do you feel, with this being such a treasured Christmas story that there’s a pressure from the museum, or the people coming to see it that they want to see a particular Christmas Carol?
Laura: I think, the museum have always been great about it they know how many interpretations there are out there and they’re happy for us to go ahead and do what we want to do with it. I think last year it wasn’t so much that there was pressure from the audience, I think we put a pressure on ourselves because it was our first time working with something so treasured. We wanted to give everyone what they were expecting from it but with a new experience. Coming into it this year we’re happy to shock people a little more. [Here Laura looks to Eleri who, without missing a beat, takes up right where Laura left off].
Eleri: Yeah I think when you’re working with an original text there’s a faithfulness to it that you have to keep, and that comes from your own love of the work and your personal investment in the story “When did you first read it; when did you hear it!” and all that stuff as well. I totally agree with what we’ve been saying, it’s striking that balance between giving people what they expect on some level and familiar characters, things that they can relate to and recognise because it’s that nostalgia that’s in the text as well. But also giving them something new, trying to have a fresh look at it, trying to bring it into relevance in 2016.
Laura: Yes, approaching the story with a relevance to something different and framing it with the themes of our modern poverty and our modern relationship with Christmas.
Moz: And how did you do that with bringing in the familiar characters? Obviously we do have Scrooge and these even today, so what’s the shock you’ve mentioned, without wanting to give too much away?
Eleri: [Eleri has a wry smile and a raised eyebrow for the question] For us, obviously we can’t give you any spoilers [she stops to laugh], but the main way we’ve brought it up-to-date in our devising process is, I mean when Dickens wrote it, it was written as a morality tale and it genuinely did encourage social change. The Christmas after it was written, in 1843, the workhouses began to treat their employees better and give them days off, and I think it was Fortman and Mason, ran out of Christmas hampers because of the employers giving them to the staff. It encouraged taking time off at Christmas and I believe that this is due in a big way to A Christmas Carol. That’s something that we’ve been looking at because when you live in modern day London you see the rich and the poor living side by side, you see everything that Dickens saw, and people are more likely to open their eyes to that at Christmas.
Laura: So we’re highlighting what’s different between now and when it was originally written but also what’s very, very much the same which can be a shock for some people.
Eleri: I think we’ve kind of done that in a big way with the ghosts as well, so we’ve got the traditional characters but the ghosts are our creative input into thinking. For example is the ghost of Christmas present the ghost of Scrooge’s present or of our present? We’ve worked with that idea and a couple of the characters who are lesser mentioned in the text but who provide us with the difference between a middle-class woman’s life and a working class woman’s life. We’ve tried to embellish those bits that aren’t exactly prominent in the text but will shed light on the things that we want to look at.
I’ve just recently finished the book for the first time, and I noticed the whole way through that it IS scary and it was spooky, so have you interpreted that? Is it a story with a happy ending that has spectres or is it a ghost story that happens to end happily?
Laura: I think it’s a ghost story set at Christmas that…ends on good terms, it doesn’t necessarily end happily, I think, it ends on good terms.
Eleri: I think that the ghost stories were so popular at the time and there was this be debate at the time between spiritualism and mesmerism, and Dickens was a big pioneer of spiritualism, and so that’s how it was sold at the time: That it was a Christmas ghost story. For us, the ghosts are very much present and they’re the characters you have the most relationship with as an audience as you’re invited the most to join in with them. Some parts of it, we have shied away from the darkness because there’s something in that Christmas joy, we’re not trying to dampen people’s spirits. Everyone is out to have a good time and we’ve tried to respect that but also we haven’t been too shy of the harsh realities or the darkness either because that’s the reality of Dickens’ Victorian life.
So we can expect to see the door knocker as Marley’s head then?
Laura: We’ve actually just chopped off his head, the actor’s head, just wasn’t working. But I think, Marley for me is the most interesting ghost. He comes along, he tells Scrooge what’s going to happen but we have to remember what Marley has gone through is the same as Scrooge but he never had anyone to come and warn him to change his ways. To me that makes him the darkest ghost, he just gets nothing from it.
Eleri: Exactly, that’s way more frightening than someone in a black cloak, [Marley] is someone who could show you a mirror to your own life. And the human connection he has to Scrooge and that as Laura has said he’s experienced what Scrooge is going to experience is pretty scary.
But is the performance scary? I will say that I had chills at points in the dress rehearsal we were invited to see, but it isn’t too terrifying for the little ones either. The show is running every half hour from 6pm on Thursday 15th and 22nd of December and all day on Christmas Eve from 10AM-6PM, tickets are available on the Dickens Museum website. As I hope you can see from the pictures of the performance throughout the post, this is well worth going to and will help keep the doors of the Dickens Museum open another year!
Wishing you a very merry Christmas,