ATHENAEUM THEATRE: When Phil Zachariah walks out on stage, he is Charles Dickens as he was in 1854, reading his A Christmas Carol to fascinated crowds hanging on his every word.
When Phil Zachariah walks out on stage, he is Charles Dickens. In voice, manner and dress he is as Charles Dickens was in his later life, when he took to touring the stages of Britain and America presenting A Christmas Carol
in the 1850s. Dickens' public readings made him a celebrity, and gave him a second career and more money than his already successful writing had previously, as well as creating a new theatrical phenomena in the Victorian era.
It’s hard to imagine today how new Dickens' approach was – physically enacting his work, giving each character a different voice, playing up each character’s accents and expressions, bringing them to life in a way we are now very familiar with. His simple gas lighting rig and touring stage set, were also new. And the story, a morality tale that spoke to the cruelty, inequality and poverty of the era, struck a chord that has lasted more than 150 years. We all know the story of Scrooge, of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim and the fateful warnings of Christmas’s past, present and future.
Zachariah and this production by Eagle’s Nest Theatre, directed by James Adler, have again brought this history back to life for Christmas. It’s quite the transportative experience. The simple lighting lowered to a yellow dimness, the closeness and tiering of the Athenaeum theatre pulling the audience tighter to hang on every word, the lone actor on the stage, a lectern and a single faux-arch panel behind him. The whole theatre seemed to shimmer in the time shift.
It is quite odd, to time travel in this way, almost the theatrical equivalent of a museum piece. There’s always a sense of ‘this was as it was’ that is both fascinating and at times jarring, as though you might touch the dust and glass if you reached out to feel for it. Insisting on delivering characters ‘as Dickens may have played them’ rather than how we might imagine them today was an understandable and laudable artistic choice, but at times it distracts; women becoming anachronistic titterers and cheerful characters, and, notably, Christmas Present becoming outlandishly jocular and rotund.
Zachariah’s performance however, was terrific (despite a few small stuttered moments), full of energy, facial expression and entertaining accents. The accomplishment of delivering so many characters, whilst remaining steadfastly and always convincingly in the overarching character of Dickens for such a complex and extensive text, was impressive. Zachariah has performed with the Victoria State Opera Schools Tour, played George Bernard Shaw for 3MBS and recently appeared alongside his son Lee Zachariah in The Bazura Project on ABC2.
The lighting and staging are very effective in supporting the premise of historical accuracy – simple and minimal.
Introducing an early primary school-aged child to The Christmas Carol story in this way was a little daunting and it would possibly suit teenagers and students better. Nonetheless it can still engross and intrigue younger ones. ‘How can it be a play if there’s only one person?’ was asked. Then an even more complicated question was: ‘How can it be about Christmas’s future when it’s set in the past?’ Yet, the story still carries its own, and the Victorian era language is lifted off the page and breathed to life in a way more authentic and telling than any Hollywood recreation.
The production has now departed for Germany with a tour over the Christmas season – see www.westentasche.de/index.htm for details.
Rating: 3 ½ stars
Charles Dickens performs A Christmas Carol
presented by Eagle’s Nest Theatre
Starring: Paul Zachariah
Director/ Executive Producer: James Adler
Producer: Mark Crees
Stage Management: Tegan Hutchinson
Assistant Stage Management: Kate Buttery
Production Assistant: Andi Snelling
Set Design Robert Lingham
December 9-11, 8.00pm
Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne
Ticketek ph: 1300 795 012