A Christmas Carol: the consummate tale of a snow-covered, frost-bitten yuletide London full of woollen scarves, top hats and roasted chestnuts. Not at the Young Vic. This is A Christmas Carol taken to the townships by South African company Isango/Portobello. It is, of course, still the tale of Scrooge, who has lost the meaning of Christmas and needs to take a journey to reawaken it. Matthew Amer was at the festive first night.
It is always a good test of a production when there are classes of school children in the audience. The minute it lags or its conceits do not work you begin to hear murmuring, chattering and laughter. At the Young Vic yesterday, the children were as quiet as the moneylending offices of the traditional Ebeneezer Scrooge.
But this is not a traditional Scrooge. This Scrooge is a woman who owns a gold mine, a woman who has forgotten the hardship she lived through in her childhood, a woman who does not care about the world around her, and a woman who certainly doesn’t care about Christmas.
While the audience was silent, this production is anything but. In transporting Dickens’s tale to the townships, it is filled with music and dance, not just in big numbers but in the background of many scenes. Indeed, when the music is cut and the stage descends into silence it makes the performances that much more poignant.
The central performance by Pauline Malefane is commanding. Her entrance, following a magical, musical and loud opening by the miners, brims with malevolence and is one of the moments where silence reigns.
There would be little point transporting this story to South Africa if it were not relevant to that place and time. But when Dickens talks about the poor, the hungry, those ravaged by disease, the connections are painfully apparent, culminating in a want and ignorance speech highlighting a world in which one child dies every three seconds.
In transposing the tale, Dickens’s original language is blended with the words of director Mark Dornford-May to produce a text that occasionally jars, but is filled with the joyous sentiment of redemption and realisation that has come to be expected. There may be no Christmas pudding, but the Young Vic certainly has a Christmas cracker.
A Christmas Carol runs in repertoire with The Magic Flute until 19 January.