In some respects, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a tale about stepping back from the commercialism of the holiday season. It is a tale that strips down the decked out holiday, revealing that, at its core, Christmas is about the celebration of friends, family, and eating far too much turkey. Soulpepper director Michael Shamata took this message to heart when he stripped down the play to its bare bones, staging A Christmas Carol in-the-round with minimal props and a nearly naked set.
Soulpepper’s theatrical adaptation of A Christmas Carol does not stray far from Dickens’s original tale, but it is the small casting and staging details that keep this Christmas classic fresh for both young and old eyes alike. By staging the play in-the-round, Shamata fosters a sense of intimacy between the actors and the audience. There is a liminal quality to the play—the audience is almost a part of the production. Typically, we’re not used to seeing other audience members react in shock or awe to a production, but due to the nature of staging in-the-round, it is nearly impossible not to catch a glimpse of your own emotions mirrored in another across the theatre. Shamata, perhaps aware of this in-between space fostered by the staging, has included two characters dubbed the Harlequins that epitomize the ephemeral.
The Harlequins are intermediary characters that act as both stage hands and minor characters throughout the play. The two slip in and out of scenes, blending with the actors as they join into a carousing dance scene, and separating from them as they flirt and dance around the stage while moving props and sets. Their faces sport half-makeup, a smudge of ghostly white on both cheeks, denoting that they do not belong to one world, but three: they belong to the world of ghosts, the world of fiction and imagination, and finally to our world, as they materialize new scenes for the audience by moving sets and placing props.
The intimacy that is fostered by the staging is furthered by John Jarvis’ opening monologue. Jarvis, who plays not only the narrator, but also the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, as well as the ghost of Marley, opens the play by breaking the fourth wall and inviting the audience to believe in the ghosts that will soon walk the stage. Jarvis’s monologue opens the play on a very honest note—it is a play well aware that it is asking the audience to believe and indulge in their imaginations. And it is precisely imagination, and its ability to bring a person to multiple places and times at once, that Soulpepper’s production of A Christmas Carol seems to celebrate.
Ultimately, this is a relatively straightforward production of a Christmas classic. The acting is strong throughout the entire cast and the costumes are fantastic, from the Victorian era gowns to the four ghosts. But what makes this production dazzle is the fact that Shamata has stripped away the bells and whistles associated with the holiday season in order to focus on the small details that often get overlooked. It’s these small details that shine brightest, and it is those very details that set this production of A Christmas Carol apart.