The Gate’s production of Charles Dickens’s seasonal classic A Christmas Carol is a new version by Jack Thorne, who as well as writing the stage version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has just brought Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to the BBC, in a sparkling adaptation.
In an original twist, his take on A Christmas Carol, which opens next week, casts the three ghosts as women. They are played by Fionnula Flanagan, Camille O’Sullivan and Kate Gilmore.
“Having these three extraordinary Irish women to play the ghosts in A Christmas Carol is a very exciting element of this new production, an Irish premiere,” says Selina Cartmell, the head of the Dublin theatre, who is also directing the production.
Here, we meet the actors playing the three ghosts, as well as the production’s costume designer, Katie Davenport, to talk about the clothes and the actors’ approach to their roles.
“The three ghosts, in mourning for Scrooge, are all wearing versions of Victorian mourning clothes. Because death was so prevalent at the time, women spent half their lives in those clothes, which you had to wear for two and a half years,” explains Davenport, describing her approach to costuming the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future.
“The Victorians were so extravagant in their clothing – sumptuous taffetas and lace – probably the fanciest clothing of the time. I wanted to pull out the textures of Victorian clothing with a little bit of a modern flavour.”
The Gate veteran is back at the theatre after her Tony-nominated role in the Broadway production of The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes. The fact that the ghosts are women, she says, brings a fresh twist to the play. Flanagan plays the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The ghosts “bring a whole female sense into it,” she says. “There is no mention of a mother in Scrooge – there is a father behaving badly – so having a ghost as a woman supplies it with an extra dimension. I have an all-black costume with a veil. I have always wanted to wear a veil – other than a bridal one! – and I have a pram, which is tiny. I assume there is a dead baby in it, and I have a lantern – I like all that as it speaks to something inside all of us. We are all haunted – I remember that line from Mrs Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts. Scrooge neglects everything – friends, love, children – he gives them all up to pursue his ambition to become a wealthy man.”
It’s not the first time Flanagan has appeared in A Christmas Carol; she was in a film version in 2009, with Jim Carrey as Scrooge, Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit and Colin Firth as Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. She played Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs Dilber. “We were mostly dressed like Teletubbies,” she says, laughing.
Camille O’Sullivan, who plays the ghost of Christmas Present, has worked with Selina Cartmell before on the director’s award-winning 2007 production of Sweeney Todd, in which she played the beggarwoman. For an artist and performer who mostly works alone on stage with musicians, O’Sullivan enjoys being part of an ensemble.
“I have this otherness, according to Fionnula, and [my role] as Christmas Present is to allow me to make Scrooge more aware of the paths he should not have taken. My costume has a cool, more severe look to it, and I think anyone dressed in a suit looks pretty good. James’s grandmother [James Seaver is head of costume at the Gate] was a seamstress for Dior, so my trouser suit is made to measure in black taffeta, and the shoes are quite metallic – it’s like the future and past together; there is an enigmatic thing to it, but more severe.
“The play is about Christmas: what it is, whether everyone is happy or whether we really care about the people in our lives. I think the show will be very magical. When I am in the room there is a power; I am the one who does the cleaning-up job. The present is about cause and effect. A good 80 per cent of what you wear is confidence, and the character is in the clothes.
“I am fascinated by fashion and what it is that binds one to an audience in a show like this. You use all your womanly wiles, and each of us will have something very different [to bring to the production].”
The role of the Ghost of Christmas Future is played by Kate Gilmore, in what will be her fifth appearance at the Gate. She combines that role with that of Scrooge’s baby sister, Fran. “I have to come back as two characters, one in life and the other in the afterlife,” she says. “I warn him about what could happen and I listen to him and understand him. To bring a ghost as a woman really enables him to be vulnerable, and you need to be vulnerable in order to change, so three women bring something extra to the story. I deal with a softer Scrooge, because the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present have softened him up to begin with.”
Her costume, of black leather, fingerless gloves and a PVC raincoat, although fundamentally Victorian in spirit, has a modern goth touch to it. “It has a Matrix vibe, and as Christmas Future is soaking wet I have an umbrella and long gingery hair – so I will look quite frightening. The dress is cut to the knee with a hoop skirt... There is something childlike about it, but the shoes are adult shoes, so you don’t really know what age she is.” Like O’Sullivan, she enjoys ensemble work, “and working with such legends has been so exciting”.
A Christmas Carol previews at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until Wednesday, November 20th, then runs from Thursday, November 21st, until Saturday, January 18th, 2020