Something compels me to go to the Berkshire Theatre Group’s A Christmas Carol late in the run. I hear two powerful forces—exhaustion and nostalgia—in the actors. This latest performance had both of these. I sat first near the back of the hall. One could often hear sounds of approval, quiet sounds, surprise after surprise from the children in the audience. These sounds were in the air when the stage was distant. After intermission I sat in the third row, and I could sense palpably the camaraderie of the actors in their last performance. Eric Hill has built a version of the story which tells the tale smoothly, not wading through the usual bumps that adaptations leave. His willingness to listen on stage gave the whole production a flavor.
Sincerity shown brightly in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s A Christmas Carol this year. The show fit beautifully into the Colonial Theatre. It looked stunning. There was no excessive amplification—a thousand thank-you’s for that! Even after several iterations, all cast members from the smallest chirping child to master actor Eric Hill as Scrooge, came right at us with intensity and sweetness. The show is so well-constructed that it completes the novella, makes it richer. Actors of all ages found ways to advance the performances of their peers. This was one of the best productions I have seen this year, because it really did the impossible—it combined scenic opulence with direct, honest playing.
The much-maligned poetry of Edgar Allan Poe still bristles with excitement when one hears it. High and mighty Emerson called it a bunch of “jingles.” The musical reference is appropriate. A poem like “Annabelle Lee” is basically a sound event. The sonic Poe I have in my imagination was revered by the French, Baudelaire in particular, as much as he was reviled by the Americans. He belongs somewhere in between. I’m thinking of the compulsive themes of live burial, standing cliffs edge and wanting to jump, or life and death blurred-blended. All of these things figure prominently in Debussy’s great opera Pelléas et Mélisande.
Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a moralizing tale, strictly speaking. It’s one of those that’s mostly tough with the sweetmeats at the end. It’s a story you already know. It is such a good tale structurally that it has proved irresistible to tinkerers of all sorts. The layout works. It has a little bit of everything — ghosts, little children, Christmas stuff, a happy ending. It seems to me the great message of the story is not the happy result of generosity, but something much more private, the promise that there still is time. It is not too late for Scrooge. This is the center of it. Good productions say this clearly. Eric Hill, in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn, got this across clearly. This actor has a technique so finished it disappears. At one point wandering around his premises, he made a series of sub-verbal noises — moans, groans — you knew exactly what he meant. He wasn’t a ferocious Scrooge; he just didn’t care – didn’t want to be bothered. This seemed right to me. He didn’t exaggerate his fear when Marley’s ghost appeared, nor did he overdo the high jinks at the end. I see this same economy in his directing, sometimes almost too much so, as in the recent Macbeth. But there is always a center line to what he does, and there is always cohesion. This was a real performance, not a holiday treat.
Harold Pinter is still very much alive, a potent and welcome presence in the world because of his political work, but when The Caretaker, or any other of the plays from the height of his fame in the theater, is produced, most of us take it as a classic from the past. After all Pinter’s announcement in 2005 of his retirement from the stage marked a significant break, and the world has changed significantly since the sixties. His powerful Nobel Prize lecture, Art, Truth, and Politics, meticulously prepared and taped by BBC 4, shows his current way of reaching his audience in a time when indifference, commercialism in the media, and unofficial censorship make it virtually impossible to get salutary and unpleasant messages across to anyone who is not already convinced. We deal with people who disagree with us by marginalizing them. When he wrote The Caretaker in 1959, his first commercial success, he established himself as the quintessential all-round man of the theater. He already had considerable experience as an actor and director, in addition to the plays he had already written, of which The Birthday Party and The Dumbwaiter are still performed often. From there he continued his threefold theatrical activity on mainstream stages and on the screen. His collaboration with the brilliant director Joseph Losey was perhaps the peak of his film work, as it was for Losey, but it was also characteristic of Pinter’s own theatrical style, which is also well documented in films of his plays, beginning with Clive Donner’s 1963 film of The Caretaker with two members of its original cast, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance.