Monday, December 9, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "A Man of Different Stories" (on David Mynne's performance of A Christmas Carol)

a man of different stories
by Douglas Messerli

David Mynne, performer, A Christmas Carol (based on the fiction by Charles Dickens) / directed by Simon Harvey / the performance I attended with Diana Bing Daves McLaughlin and her granddaughter Elcie on December 7, 2019 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater in Beverly Hills, California.

Cornwell, England performer David Mynne, directed by another Cornwellian, Simon Harvey, performs the Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic A Christmas Carol as a kind of gang of voices, from the sounds of the wind to the chains of his former partner Jacob Marley. In a sense Ebenezer Scrooge, in this performance, becomes, if nothing else, a one-man dynamo, who seems to be everywhere at every moment. This is certainly not the isolated and trying-to-sleep businessman of Edwin L. Marin’s 1938 movie where Reginald Owens plays a miser desperately seeking to escape all human contact. No languid escapism in this version of the work!
      Just for the fact that Mynne himself performs the specters who threaten him throughout the night, we see a far greater vision of the physcologically-driven spirts who haunt him.

     It reminded me that Marley and he had been students together at the awful Dickensian boarding-school they both attended, and that the older “partner” had taken the younger under his wing, so to speak. I’ve always been interested in that strange male bonding, which, by accident, I discovered another fictional telling about two days later in The New York Times Book Review, a review of Jon Clinch’s new novel Marley which more carefully explores their relationship.
      Obviously in Dickens’ work there is no homosexual or even homoerotic connection between the two, but, as Clinch writes, “The adolescent Marley immediately establishes a viselike hold over the newly arrived Scrooge,” and you do have to wonder how Scrooge in his early days so interned himself as an accountant—a role Bob Cratchit later plays to the miserly Scrooge—to a secretive man who may have been working in his business dealings in the slave trade—so Clinch suggests—who, when Scrooge discovers the fact, attempts to redeem the company to which he is attached. But ultimately, it is the “frightening and dangerously attractive” (as critic Simon Callow describes him) who, through his love of Scrooge’s sister Fan, is redeemed while Scrooge becomes the greater monster.
     This fictional version of events, obviously, is not completely there in Mynne’s wonderful performance; yet there is something even stranger about his sudden attraction to Crotchit’s dying son, Tiny Tim, who he sits upon his shoulder as a hand glove, in such an intimate action that it almost suggests an act of pedophilia.
      I looked to my friend Diana Bing Daves McLaughlin’s grandchild Elcie to see how she was reacting to all of this, but realized her crawling into and up above her seat that she was probably simply enjoying the crazy puppet-like actions, as if Mynne’s shoulder sock might be just another version of Sesame Street.
      Yet Mynne’s lively production was not so tame as that children’s series. Even as he buys a giant turkey to feed Cratchit’s brood, there is something transactional about his actions. The family is well-fed, but we cannot quite comprehend how they will survive in the future, even as Scrooge now delightedly attends the Christmas dance party of his nephew.
      If he has found a new life in his very sudden conversion, we recognize him still as the same man of whoosing winds and horrors he has collected through his life. The leaves seem to pile up, created through his own voice, even as he attests a new joy in the Christmas season.
      Given he is a single tornado of voices, we can never be sure in this version who Scrooge really is. He has, in a sense, become his own past, Marley, the Spirit of Christmas’ past, and the horror of possible Christmas’ future all in the single spirit of one failed human being. And we never know when one of those myriad voices will again turn on the human race to express “Bah Humbug.”
       If Marley is locked-up in chains of his own terrible actions of the past, this Scrooge’s life is equally compelled by the man different stories he tells of his own existence.
       A “slave trade” is truly what Dickens’ work is all about, the trading of human flesh (or at least a giant turkey) for one’s own pleasure and servitude. Bob Cratchit must eventually return to work and Tiny Tim will ultimately be removed from the arm which has brought him back to life.
      Having lost his youthful sister, his dearly beloved partner, and his lover Belle, Scrooge will never truly be one of the ordinary people who surround him. Bitterness will surely sadly creep into his life once again. In this production, moreover, Mynne plays all the fragile figures and even the landscape of a world of capitalist greed, where all the tiny figures of money made and lost gets toted up. After all, money buys a large turkey for Christmas dinner; poverty buys an occasional small goose.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2019).

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