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A Christmas Carol and the making of a miser


In the Old Vic’s rendition of A Christmas Carol, we find ourselves watching the Christmas classic through a kaleidoscope – same pieces, different configuration. Starring the formidable Owen Teale, who you’ll remember as the brooding fellow who unceremoniously knifed Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the production gives us Scrooge as if he had wandered out of Westeros, growling and grimacing his way through Victorian London.

But we should pause and ask: why another Christmas Carol and why now? It seems like every other year there’s a new adaptation, and in sheer pathos, few seem able to match Michael Caine displaying his acting chops alongside Kermit. It’s a story we all know backwards and its tropes (grumpy old man spars with the supernatural and attains some much-needed redemption at Christmas) have spawned a thousand variants.

This version, penned by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), takes a detour from Dickens’ original delving into Scrooge’s past, painting him not just as a villain, but as a victim of circumstances – a man more broken than bad. Story-wise, you know the drill: Scrooge bah humbugs his way through Christmas Eve, his crabbiness and sheer disregard for his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit symptomatic of his great moral failings. Former business partner Marley visits him as a ghost in chains, demands that Scrooge must repent, and knows that it’s impossible. Marley tells Scrooge about the Christmas ghosts who will visit him as a reckoning of sorts. Although if they really think he’s a lost cause, it’s a wonder they bother in the first place.

Through the ghost of Christmas past, the audience witnesses the forming of Scrooge’s icy exterior: an abusive, alcoholic, and perpetually indebted father, and a thwarted love story absent from the original tale. (Keen-eyed viewers will see parallel to Dickens, whose father was perpetually hamstrung by debt.) With each newly revealed layer to Scrooge’s psyche, the audience sympathises with Scrooge as he begrudgingly begins to sympathise with himself.

As Scrooge gradually and reluctantly acknowledges the slings and arrows that went into shaping his own character, the play presents a convincing case that we could all benefit from a degree of self-reflection; that only with self-knowledge can one attain self-love. That only by considering our past and appreciating that we made choices, rightly or wrongly, with the limited information available to us, can we be morally equipped to live with the present. 

It’s a worthy message, but the play isn’t satisfied with a tale of simple redemption, and it ends up walking a fine line between empathy and antipathy towards its protagonist. While we’re invited to consider the abuse he suffered, we’re still meant to hold Scrooge responsible for his miserly misanthropy. Again, not too dissimilar to the original, but through a megaphone. There are moments when this approach creates a tension with the play’s sense of bonhomie: in a story of repentance and forgiveness, should we skewer Scrooge or, in the face of his contrition, let him off the hook? The play ends up doing both.


'It seems to suggest that if we do, God forbid, find ourselves as frustrated and antisocial misers one Christmas, we would do well to look inward and rediscover the parts of ourselves that have been hurt and suppressed. This is less about change as much as – I’m loath to use the phrase – living authentically.'


Much like Christmas stalwart It’s a Wonderful Life, which borrows from the Dickens story, A Christmas Carol posits that the antidote to despair lies in truly understanding the rippling impact our lives have on others. Like George Bailey, Scrooge goes from despondency to elation only when he is granted the ability to see and understand the daily reality of others, knowing that he has played a part in their story.

Worth noting is that in all versions of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is surrounded by inexplicably adoring people, like his nephew Fred and the saintly Bob Cratchit, whose seemingly infinite reservoirs of warmth and selfless love are likely more instrumental in melting Scrooge’s frosted exterior than any poltergeist. Through them, the play emphasises the importance of empathy; that seeing and experiencing the daily struggles of other people are necessary preconditions to love and understanding. The ghosts get too much credit: it’s St Bob and Tiny Tim who remove the scales from Scrooge’s eyes to see others as fully human.

As a celebration of interconnectedness and co-responsibility worthy of Alexei Karamazov, Dickens’ original has something valuable to say about the vices of materialist greed and society’s relationship with the super wealthy. In Dickens’ vision the rich were there, present amongst lower social strata, but their relationship with society was ideally one of symbiosis. The wealthy were meant to mitigate the cost of social crises, and when this social contract was reneged upon in Scrooge’s case, the ghosts came. This theme resonates with current societal dynamics where the super-rich have arguably stopped fulfilling the position they once did in making financial sacrifices for the common good. Alongside dialling up the interpersonal melodrama in Scrooge’s history, Thorne’s iteration would have done well to tease this out a little more.

The dénouement is an explosion of Christmas delight, albeit with a couple of hiccups – Scrooge almost immediately takes a break from his manic geniality to pay a house call to his lost love on Christmas morning, and his abortive attempt at reconciliation only results in a frank and awkward discussion about closure. This visit from the ghost of Christmas awkwardness is an odd little lull during his triumphal elation, but no Christmas is perfect, I suppose.

And while Scrooge returns to whip his street into a frenzy of merriment, the spirit of Scrooge’s late sister also takes a moment to interrupt him mid-festivities to really hammer home a couple of moral points, like no one is lost as long as they are Willing To Change. Tonally, it’s as though the father in the parable of Prodigal Son had decided to browbeat his wayward lad while slaughtering the fatted calf, and I couldn’t help but feel this undermined the core message. The play emphasises not the merits of change, so much as the roles of remembrance and reflection in living a moral life. It seems to suggest that if we do, God forbid, find ourselves as frustrated and antisocial misers one Christmas, we would do well to look inward and rediscover the parts of ourselves that have been hurt and suppressed. This is less about change as much as – I’m loath to use the phrase – living authentically.

Maybe A Christmas Carol leans a little too far into moralising, at times laying it on thicker than Dickens did, but this is a minor quibble, eclipsed by the overwhelming sense of communal joy and generosity at its centre. (Snow from the ceiling! Bells! Carols!) It’s heart-meltingly glorious. It celebrates the shared journey of life, suggesting that the inevitability of death should inspire joy and love in the limited days we have.


The Old Vic’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ is staged at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre until 7 January 2024.




David Halliday is editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Owen Teale (Christmascarolaustralia.com.au)

Topic tags: David Halliday, Christmas Carol, OldVic, Theatre, Scrooge, OwenTeale, JackThorne



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Existing comments

A few days ago I asked my granddaughter if she would like to accompany me to Canberra’s live production of A Christmas Carol. “What’s it about?” she asked. It’s about Scrooge I replied. “Oh, I know about Scrooge. When can we go?” Everybody adores Scrooge. And rightly so.
We need him at this time of year.

Pam | 30 November 2023  

It's gratifying that Scrooge isn't portrayed as a Jew, as he used to in Victorian and Edwardian productions of 'A Christmas Carol'. The key to Scrooge being popular is that he is identifiable as a villain occasionally played for laughs at Christmas.

Although Dickens, Eng Lit's most successful global author in the C19th, carefully avoided describing Scrooge as Jewish, Scrooge was portrayed as wizened, with a Semitic nose and often by actors who gave him an identifiable Jewish accent.

By the time Dickens serialised 'Oliver Twist' he was more conscious of employing a popular stereotype and the heightened awareness of the British community to the slanderous potential for such characterisation at a time when a naturalised Lebanese Jew, Disraeli, had managed to successfully challenge the virtue signaling of Gladstone.

Queen Victoria herself commented on her preference for Disraeli, thereby giving him a welcome boost in the polls. When asked about the difference between the two statesmen, her purported response, published in The Tatler, was that Gladstone addressed her as if she was 'a public assembly'! This was at a time when the British monarchy was mercilessly mocked by cartoonists.

David Halliday wisely discerns MTC's 'Scrooge' as elderly, lonely and phobic.

Michael Furtado | 04 December 2023  

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