But no, onto the stage strode a magnificent figure in immaculate suit and Dickens’s trademark bushy beard, a rose in his buttonhole. Phil Zachariah embodied the charismatic Dickens, who gave 444 solo performances of his work in the last sixteen years of his life. In a stentorian voice, he launched immediately into the reading of A Christmas Carol, his vowels full and fruity, a surprising voice from an Australian actor. For the next seventy minutes he told us the tale, with almost no reference to the ‘script’. He was unstinting in his portrayal of the many characters, male and female, from Scrooge himself, wizened and tight-throated to Tiny Tim in his piping innocence. With the power and flexibility of his voice and a dramatic physicality, Zachariah brought this famous moral tale to prodigious life.
If anything at all undermined this impressive display, it is just that. It was a display of talent. This performance, which has been honed over the past few years and is now toured by Eagles’ Nest Theatre uses a facsimile of Dickens’s prompt copy and attempts to recreate the master storyteller onstage, according to eyewitness accounts. Dickens was a phenomenal success and in 1859 The Cambridge Independent Press said this of him: “Every character had a different voice, a different style, a different face”. Zachariah is equally impressive in his characterisations. But does today’s audience require something different? I would have liked Zachariah’s Dickens to introduce himself, to speak to me directly, to win me over before I was happy to relax and listen to his story. I would have liked my narrator to use quieter tones more often to take me into his confidence. I would have liked him to stop worrying about his microphone and relax into the role of narrator, maybe even improvise if the moment demanded.
Having said that, Zachariah did become more intimate with his audience as he warmed to the task, addressing them more frequently. The earlier part of the story, where Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge dragging the chains, had little of the original text’s chilling horror. But the storytelling became increasingly atmospheric, particularly in the Christmas dinner scene in Bob Cratchit’s humble house. And Zachariah’s flashes of humour were brilliant and a welcome relief from the high drama.
When the performance was over, the man in the hat reappeared to take a bow with Zachariah. He was the director, James Adler of Eagle’s Nest Theatre. Charles Dickens Performs A Christmas Carol will be touring Victoria from 18 November to 20 December. It is encouraging that the art of storytelling is being celebrated in the run-up to Christmas and the show is a tour de force that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
Eagle’s Nest Theatre presents
Charles Dickens Performs A Christmas Carol
Venue: The Spiegeltent | The Arts Centre Forecourt 100 St Kilda Rd
Dates: Nov 2 & 9 @ 4pm Nov 16 @ 2pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 | www.ticketmaster.com.au
Info: www.eaglesnesttheatre.com www.spiegeltent.net