The winter holiday season is known for its festive Christmas specials, whether that’s on the air or on the stage, and this year the National Arts Centre brings you Jillian Keiley’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ literary classic, A Christmas Carol. When Dickens originally penned the tale of old Ebenezer Scrooge in 1843, he obviously had no idea that it would go on to become one of the most commonly staged scripts in Canada, but Scrooge’s journey to redemption still rings true in contemporary society. Keiley’s adaptation features some bold directorial choices that, despite being effective in some areas, end up being more convoluted than clever, and at certain points left me feeling a bit troubled. This show also comes with a staggering opportunity to engage a wider audience about important issues like disability and the arts. Unfortunately, this production ultimately doesn’t succeed in this regard either, due to a confusing mise-en-scene that pulls the spectator’s focus in too many different directions.
Upon entering the Theatre space, before you get to the actual seating, a cutesy forest awaits your exploration with various maquettes (miniature stage models) hiding amongst the tree branches. Given that it was opening night, the sheer number of people made it very difficult to see a lot of the models (I’m still unsure though if this is perhaps the point) but I did manage to sneak a peek at a couple of set designer Bretta Gerecke’s beautiful miniatures. Once everyone is seated, the audience is guided through a “tactile tour” hosted by legally-blind performer Bruce Horak and further facilitated by the rest of the ensemble.
The idea, becoming more and more popular amongst theatre houses, is to make the performance more accessible through touch for the visually impaired and/or individuals with disabilities who might otherwise find it difficult to engage with theatre, which is traditionally very visual, and usually focused on able-bodied individuals/audiences. The touch tour is a nice idea, but with so many renderings you hardly get to spend enough time really feeling each detail enough to determine which character it might be for. To be sure, I am not visually impaired, therefore my sense of touch is certainly different than that of someone who is legally blind, so I can hardly make assumptions here. I think getting to handle the props, in this sense, is more effective in that you might not always physically see them being used on stage but they are incorporated in other ways, for example, the rattling of the chains offstage (instead of being worn by the character on stage), or having to imagine the meager Christmas dinner on the empty plates of the Cratchit family.
When the show finally starts, Keiley and Gerecke send their audience for a loop by presenting us with an entirely white set and an equally achromatic costume design. With its unusual and exaggerated shapes and lines, the set feels very Seussical, whereas the costumes harken back to their Victorian roots complete with women’s flounce-y skirts and silk stockings for the men. Keiley hopes that this production will strike the right balance between memory and imagination where the audience is able to take their own memories of such a well-known text, combined with the images and textures provided during the pre-show, and create their own new perspective within the “outlines” provided by the performance.
The problem is: it’s all too much. The play between memory and imagination works for the most part, though not necessarily because of the touch tour. Keiley says it herself in her Director’s Notes in the show program: “Thirty-five different professional productions of A Christmas Carol were produced in Canada [in 2015]” and, at the time of writing this article, there is, in fact, another production of A Christmas Carol (performed by John Houston) happening at the very same time at the Gladstone. All that to say when it comes to staging this particular piece it can be hard to exorcise it of all the ghosts of past productions. This is exactly what Keiley wants to play with, but why she places such a heavy significance on Gerecke’s maquettes remains largely unknown.
I’m having difficulty understanding this choice for a few reasons: we don’t actually get to spend that much time with them preshow; we’re not encouraged to hold and/or touch them to get an idea of their use of space and texture; and their details are lost on stage to anyone further back than the first couple of rows. It’s even more puzzling because we are given a really spectacular set on stage to let our imaginations run wild on, making the many set models seem superfluous. Touching the costume renderings and the props at the beginning of the show allows us to project these textures and colours onto the characters’ costumes and set pieces, but the distance at which we view the maquettes does not allow them to function in this way. Not to mention the fact that it undermines the accessibility narrative this piece is attempting to tell.
Furthermore, the decision to keep to the original Dickensian prose also strikes me as a little odd. Perhaps it is an attempt to alienate an audience who might be unfamiliar (or who are becoming less familiar) with such language as a way of sparking their memory and subconscious knowledge of the piece to help them through, though I can’t help but feel that the cost of this choice is the audience’s ability to form deep and meaningful relationships with the figures on stage. At the risk of sounding ignorant, while I was constantly trying to work out what was being said, I completely missed the emotional punch in the “breakup” scene between Young Scrooge (Attila Clemen) and Belle (Lili Conor). The heaviness of Dickens’ prose weighs down an otherwise fluid production.
A Christmas Carol clicks along nicely with a run time of two hours, including one intermission, and the actors do a fine job on stage keeping up the energy and tempo of the piece. Scrooge, played by Andy Jones, is particularly good, though his change of heart appears to happen quite early not making for much of a climactic build. Jack Velope, as one of three Narrators and also Christmas Future, brings an incredible sense of expression on stage and I honestly could have watched him narrate the entire show. The way in which this performer uses sign language to express Dickens’ text against his on-stage interpreter Jordan Goldman is really quite lovely. Goldman doesn’t appear to be reciting a script in his head, but actually reading/interpreting Velope’s signs in real time and this creates an incredible storytelling dynamic on stage that I, for one, have never encountered before.
And this is what left me troubled: why couldn’t he narrate the entire show? Apt 613 ran this great article about the show that included mention of an interview with Velope that detailed what a unique experience it was to translate Charles Dickens into American Sign Language. They talk about how the translators don’t translate word for word but rather by taking the “essence” of the text. This is the kind of adaptation we are not treated to every day and I would have liked to see much more of this in the actual performance. Instead, Velope shares the narrator role with Horak and Dulcinea Langfelder and the trio make up the Christmas Ghosts. I understand the logistics and/or narrative desire behind having the three ghosts double as narrators, but it just feels like a missed opportunity to share work done by ASL artists as a compliment to Keiley’s own (not to mention having it be presented on equal footing) instead of simply relegating them to one or two special performances.
Like I previously stated, it’s not every day that audiences are treated to a performance in ASL, mostly because these are usually specialized performances arranged externally by the theatre house and/or production company (which is an excellent service). However the decision to narrate 100% in ASL as an intrinsic part of the performance has the potential to be incredibly impactful; it could have been really cool to see Velope and his interpreter tell us the entire story, from the perspective of those who are hearing-impaired, especially when the story is one with which we are already familiar.
Even further, I can’t help but agree with my colleague Ian Huffam when he says that this feels too much like tokenism* for this accessibility initiative to be truly effective. While I certainly respect the active role the NAC, as an organization, is taking to make their programming more inclusive, I’m not sure this particular production does so very thoughtfully. For example, I find this quote by Keiley, the NAC’s Artistic Director of English Theatre, to be relatively problematic:
“Then I saw the resonance in the possibility of casting the brilliant Bruce in the role of the ever so brilliant blinding light of Christmas Past. […] If Bruce was to play the blinding Christmas Past, it only made sense to bring in Jack to be the Ghost of Christmas Future; the spirit who knows the future by may not speak” (Director’s Notes A Christmas Carol 2016).
The statement here is well-intentioned, though, questionable because of the way in which the phrasing suggests that the disability is subservient to the character/primary source. Meaning: Horak’s visual impairment is used only to characterize Christmas Past instead of the act of Horak playing Christmas Past alluding to something significant about people with disabilities and/or their socio-political situation. Furthermore, Keiley’s decision to dress only Horak and Velope in modern and coloured dress only serves as a constant (and perhaps unnecessary) reminder of the performers’ disabilities. Though I am not a person with a disability myself, the decision to cast a blind actor as a character described as being “blinding” simply insists upon itself in a way that doesn’t contribute to the conversations we should be having surrounding disability theatre/arts.
Questions like: why do people with disabilities make up 13.7% of the Canadian population (or approximately every 1 in 10 of us) yet remain one of the most underrepresented minority groups on Canadian stages (lucky for Ottawa, we have Propeller Dance company producing some really incredible work)? Or, is it really appropriate and/or respectful to use a person’s disability to highlight an artistic metaphor in a way that only refers back to the disability itself? And finally, how do able-bodied theatre practitioners access accessibility and disability in a way that’s not self-serving to traditional non-accessible mainstream structures? I’m not currently in a position to provide any significant solution to these queries as, admittedly, I still have a lot of learning to do myself; but I can’t help feel that Keiley missed the mark on this one.
An explicit directorial choice to underscore some literary significance (i.e. casting a blind actor as the “blinding light” of Christmas Future) does nothing but underscore the fact that the performer is blind, and frankly, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It calls to mind an interview with comedian-actor Chris Rock about Black/White Hollywood in which he surmises that voting in a Black president wasn’t progress for the Black community, but rather white people patting themselves on the back for not being that racist. Casting visually- and hearing-impaired performers as characters who are described as “blinding” and mute does not make your production that much more accessible (and it doesn’t really make it pro-accessibility either), but I’m sure it makes a lot of able-bodied audience members sure feel like it is.
In conclusion, this production could be a lot more fun if it wasn’t so weighed down by its mise-en-scene. To its credit, it has a strong cast that would be of much better use if the script allowed them to be a little more modern and contemporary, though there are some noteworthy performances nonetheless. The set and costumes are simply beautiful under Michael Walton’s fabulous lighting design; and the music (under the direction of Jonathan Munro) is enough to get anyone in the Christmas spirit. Keiley’s attempt to play with memory and imagination sort of backfires- I see a production unfolding on stage in my suspension of disbelief, but I am constantly recalling my past experiences of other Christmas Carol adaptations to fill in the emotional gaps in the scenes happening in front of me. I don’t think it brings anything new to the table when it comes to Dickens, and if you’re first response is to argue, “But they’ve cast both a blind actor and a deaf actor AND translated the entire thing into ASL for a couple performances!”, then I think we need to re-evaluate what constitutes being artistically provocative in our community.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Adapted & Directed by Jillian Keiley
Playing at the National Arts Centre December 13-31
*Author’s note: we unfortunately had to remove an article by Ian Huffam as it is not in the policy of the National Arts Centre to publish reviews of a dress rehearsal. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused (a rookie error on our parts). Thank you for understanding.