Scrooge speaks to our times in two visions of A Christmas Carol

Working at the Gateway Theatre and SFU Woodward's, Russell Roberts and Jim Byrnes are having no trouble finding modern parallels to the Dickens classic

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      They’re very different productions. A Christmas Carol, at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, stays true to Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella and its setting in the sooty slums of Victorian London, with a cast made up of local theatre luminaries such as Allan Morgan, as Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Linda Quibell, as Mrs. Fezziwig. Bah Humbug!, in contrast, places a cast of professionals alongside community figures from the Downtown Eastside, where this 21st-century adaptation of Dickens’s tale is set.

      Sartorially, it’s the difference between a shabby frock coat and a threadbare hoodie—but on closer inspection maybe that’s no difference at all.

      “It’s a universal story that is timeless,” says Russell Roberts, who plays Scrooge in the Gateway production. “The aspect of poverty, and of commercialism, and the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer… It’s still pervasive. It doesn’t matter whether it’s set in Victorian times or now: poverty is rampant everywhere, and there seems to be little being done to address that any differently than it was in Dickens’s time. We don’t have the poorhouses and the debtors’ prisons, but lord knows homelessness is getting worse, the rich are stuffing their pockets, and corporate greed is all around us.”

      In a separate telephone interview, James Fagan Tait agrees. The veteran director, who’s been brought in to revamp this year’s edition of Bah Humbug!, now in its eighth season at SFU Woodward’s, notes that jumping almost two centuries into the future from Dickens’s time requires distressingly little rewriting.

      “The circumstances are the same, so it’s very easy to reach for a metaphor from today,” he explains, during a break from rehearsal. “Whatever Dickens was referencing in the workhouses and prisons back then, we can still reach for in some other things that we’ve got today. So it’s pretty timely. It hasn’t changed.”

      In some ways, things might even be worse today. Dickens’s poverty-stricken Cratchits live in a rat-infested hovel, but at least they have a real roof over their heads. In today’s Downtown Eastside, far too many have no such luxury, sleeping rough under cheerless overhangs or fending off the Vancouver rain with only a thrift-store tent for shelter. Bah Humbug! knows just where to point the finger: its Scrooge, played by Jim Byrnes, is nominally a pawnbroker, but his real business is gentrification.

      “I come walking in, talking on a cellphone, and my first lines are ‘What do you mean the city turned down my development permit? They call it renoviction? There’s only 40 tenants there. Hell, I’m trying to do good for this neighbourhood. Just tell ’em who paid for that campaign,’ ” the veteran singer and actor tells the Straight. “Right away, that establishes who we are and what we’re doing. And we make many references to the Aquilinis and the Sahotas.…There’s stuff that’s right out of the book, but we’ve put it into the Downtown Eastside.”

      Looming over both productions are the distressing developments south of the border. Bah Humbug!’s Scrooge, for instance, is a vocal supporter of the 45th president, revelling in his role as a small-scale tycoon and telling his downtrodden employee Bob Cratchit that he should have been replaced by a temporary foreign worker. Donald Trump, of course, is not explicitly referenced in the Gateway’s period production of A Christmas Carol, but his uncouth presence is also felt.

      Trump, Roberts thinks, is too far gone for the story’s message of redemption. “Well, he doesn’t have a heart, does he?” the actor observes. “But thankfully Scrooge does, and he is able to see that by being taken, by the Ghost of Christmas Past, to see the love of his youth, Belle, and to see the joy he had with the Fezziwigs. And I say, as Scrooge, regarding Fezziwig: ‘He had the power to make us happy, to make our labour light, our toil a pleasure. So what if his power lay in words and looks, things impossible to count or add up? What of that? The happiness he gave was as great as if it cost a fortune.’ And so Scrooge, happily, is shown that being reintroduced to his heart of old is the gift that he’s been given.”

      Bah Humbug!’s modern-day Scrooge is likewise offered a chance at redemption, which Byrnes frames up as a kind of turning-away from shallow materialism. Self-centredness stemming from a childhood wound is what makes a Scrooge, he observes, and the recognition of that is how his character returns to his full humanity. Scrooge is “someone who’s been alienated as a kid and is now going ‘It’s me. It’s me. It’s me,’ as many people have,” he explains. “Something happens where your importance as part of a community has been taken away, and as a reaction to that everything becomes about the self: ‘Look what I have. Look at my car. And to hell with you.’ ”

      While Dickens’s original text is primarily about individual redemption, Bah Humbug! argues that the cracked landscape of the Downtown Eastside is where a greater societal redemption, especially in the context of today’s push for truth and reconciliation, might take place. At the very least, Byrnes suggests, this production will allow for a few small seasonal miracles.

      “The light, in fact, does come through,” he says, “and everybody goes home with a smile on their face.”

      A Christmas Carol runs at the Gateway Theatre from Friday (December 8) to December 24. Bah Humbug! is at SFU Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre from Thursday to next Saturday (December 7 to 16).