A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy http://www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.
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School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

lionwitchwardrobe

NOTHING to do on a rainy day: Pevensie siblings Peter (Sandi Dlangalala), Lucy (Nomonde Matiwane), Susan (Nieke Lombard) and Edmund (Daniel Keith Geddes). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHEN REAL MAGIC prevails in a situation, the mystery can be so great that all ideas of play-acting illusion and scepticism are cast aside spontaneously, mesmerising young and old unashamedly in the sense of ‘what if’ that it conjures. This is exactly what happens in the stage version of C S Lewis’s beautiful classic novel, which has been changing children’s lives since the 1950s. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the quintessential fantasy that takes a bored and rather lonely eight year old through a cupboard in a strange house and into another world, filled with romance and mythology, conquest and the clash of good and evil.

It’s an immensely complicated tale, which some critics have reflected upon as a parable or an allegory. Involving the emotional detritus of the Second World War, the rubrics of heraldry and the story of the resurrection of a great and powerful leader, it’s the kind of work that you might think a children’s theatre director would shy from: replete with so much nuance and detail, it’s a terrifying prospect to stage in a comprehensive manner, and a tight time frame, particularly for little ones.

Director Francois Theron is clearly up for this task in this completely new and stripped down approach to the work. Armed with a couple of bedsheets, a few branches painted white, some baskets with lids and a whole bunch of ingenuity, not to forget a lion which is completely noble in its presence, this fabulously directed cast of four create the whole narrative through children’s eyes. While the specifics of this tale might not be completely accessible to the very young in the audience, replete as it is with the unapologetically complicated language of the original, the magic most certainly will, and as a very fine and boisterous Lucy Pevensie (Nomonde Matiwane) takes us by the hand (alongside her older siblings) into the core of utter magic, which introduces classical mythological beasties such as the Faun, Mr Tumnus (Daniel Keith Geddes), suddenly you are transformed into the nine-year-old that you once were when you were bewitched by this novel decades ago.

It’s not only sterling performances, and utterly wise casting which sees the oldest boy, Peter (Sandi Dlangalala) as the responsible 14-year-old and Susan, the big sister (Nieke Lombard) as one imbued with her own sense of importance in the pecking order, not to forget the less-focused Edmund (Geddes) who becomes susceptible to the allure of the White Witch (Lombard) and her beguiling Turkish Delights; there’s also magic in the set itself. Using echoed circles of magic, ones in twigs and others cast by light, the space is set alight with an impervious sense of possibility that plays with abstraction and make believe as it flirts with true magic. The kind that rests in the hearts of any undeveloped artist, waiting to unfold.

It’s a dream-come-true production which doesn’t lose itself in the details of the original book. Rather, it boldly takes possession of the nub of the tale, keeps the cast in their classic 1950s English school uniforms, and with the device of a shadow casting the texture of lead-lighting in casement windows of English period architecture, the tone is set for the magic to begin. This work is about the craft of the discipline, the necessary suspension of belief as well as all the bits and pieces of magnificence that keep it glowing.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on the eponymous 1950 novel by C S Lewis, dramatised by Le Clanche du Rand and directed by Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Mathew Lewis (lighting), and it is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard and Nomonde Matiwane, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until September 3 and then, from September 25 until October 15. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Nothing to fear, Gruffalo’s here!

Gruffalo

ONE roar and all resistance crumbles: Sisonke Yefele is The Gruffalo. Photograph by Nardus Engelbrecht.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you were all alone in a forest, with a yen for a nice big nut, and a knowledge that there were creatures for whom you would be lunch? A brave brown mouse, played by Nombasa Ngoqo captures the hearts and sense of adventure of little ones as she tricks the fox, the owl and the snake into believing she’s tougher than them in this South African version of the West End’s The Gruffalo.

It’s a-screech-a-minute scenario in a deep, dark wood, with the very young audience members, who love the “He’s right behind you!” sequences of shouts in this show, of which there are plenty. It’s a character which, penned by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler in 1999 in a storybook took the world by storm.

The Gruffalo – played by Sisonke Yefele – is a monster who’s quite easily frightened, in truth. He’s a madcap combination of various scary elements, such as horns and poisonous warts, deliciously potent claws and orange eyes, and the story’s largely about who can be more hilariously scared than who. It’s also a tale of friendship and trickster behaviour and an understanding of the soft spots of the monster you can conjure up in your mind.

Brought to fantastic life on stage with bright colour and intense sound, replete with a cuddly Gruffalo costume, it’s a rollicking bit of theatre which the littlies will know from their exposure to other levels of Gruffalo rhetoric. He’s everywhere, in the form of stuffed plush toys, games and songs. While the piped music often fights with the performers’ voices and you lose some of the work’s nuance in the lyrics, this is not a hassle for the toddlers on board, who want ultimate victory for the mouse and a chance to pat the Gruffalo himself.

  • The Gruffalo is a stage adaptation of the eponymous children’s story book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It is directed by Tara Notcutt and performed by Mandisi Heshu, Nombasa Ngoqo, Ayanda Nondlwana and Sisonke Yefele at Auto and General Theatre on the Square, twice daily, until May 7. Visit gruffalolive.co.za or call 011-883-8606.

Needles, wool lend self-love universal threads

raffi

CELEBRATING difference: Craig Pomranz’s Made by Raffi. Photograph courtesy amazon.com

WERE YOU ONE of the “normal” set in primary school? Did you go around proclaiming things like “Look how short she is! She must be two years old, not seven. Do you think she’s a midget, maybe!” or “Let’s tease the fat boy with the red hair and tell him how ugly he is!” In so many respects, this is so-called normal behaviour. Children construct their own identity among their peers by the yardsticks of sameness and difference.

And often it is the child who is different from everyone else who gets ostracised, and turned into a scapegoat to be jeered at – be it the child who has red hair, the child who is shorter, bigger, fatter, darker than everyone else; the child who is more intelligent, more talented, more taciturn, more foreign. And always, it is these very children who have to construct their own identity using different margins of self-hood. Craig Pomranz’s Made by Raffi engages these issues head on, with a boy who can knit.

Illustrated with simplicity and freshness by Margaret Chamberlain, the book is succinct and lucid and even touches on gender issues briefly, but poignantly enough to matter and not be inappropriate, to a child who is just on the point of learning to read by themselves.

Raffi is not like the other children. He likes to wear bright colours. He likes to keep his hair longer than most. He’s quietly spoken and is afraid of the loud and rambunctious children who push and shout. He gravitates to the teachers at break because he perceives a sense of stability to exude from them – and he knows they won’t tease him. Knitting – and sewing – become sanctuaries for him and turn his status amongst his peers around.

Structured and functioning with the same type of focus as Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling, or Julianne Moore’s Strawberry Freckleface, Made by Raffi contains all the important elements that impress child readers. There is a fabulous sense of detail in the drawings of the children in Raffi’s class which keep you focused on each page, and above all there is a sense of levity conjoined with earnestness that keeps the story real – whether your child is the one who’s different or the one who notices differences in others.