He read his first Dickens’ novel at the tender age of ten, now actor Phil Zachariah stars as the great man himself
For the tenth year in a row, Charles Dickens Performs A Christmas Carol, a recreation of Dickens’ celebrated readings, will return to Melbourne as part a world tour. Actor Phil Zachariah talks to Time Out about a close call in an Amsterdam nightclub, a 48kg block of St Kilda Rd and what it’s like to play a literary hero.
This year marks Charles Dickens 200th birthday. At what age did you discover Dickens?
I read Oliver Twist when I was about 10 or 11 and after initially being awestruck by the length of the first sentence, wallowed happily in the richness of the characters and the story. For a long time, I read no other Dickens novel, I just wanted to process such parts of Twist as I understood while I waited to be old enough to leap into the other books, boots ’n’ all. In the meantime, my mother would occasionally colour her conversation with such phrases as “very ’umble, Mr Copperfield” and “Barkus is willin’ ”.
Was she the main influence in your decision to take on A Christmas Carol?
No, but she was the main influence in my decision to take on Dickens. I think I was around 19 or 20 when she took my brother and I to see Emlyn Williams read Dickens as Dickens, an extraordinary experience. Later, she’d occasionally say, “You should do the Dickens readings”, she meant a similar mix of novel extracts and short stories.
Years later, I was beginning to seriously consider her idea, and mentioned it to Simon Callow, who declared, “You should do it, my boy!” When a producer friend, Adrian D’Aprano, heard all this, he decided, on the spot, that I’d be reading A Christmas Carol. Sadly, my mother was no longer here to see it.
A Christmas Carol is known and loved the world over and has been re-enacted by everyone from am-dram groups to the Muppets. Why do you think it is so successful and what do you love about it?
The characters are wonderful, the story is heart-warming and moving, the message is relevant and the writing is brilliant. A Christmas Carol tells us that horrible people can change, that there are usually real and tragic reasons for them being as they are, and that making other people’s lives better immeasurably enriches our own. And it’s funny, funny, funny!
Your version of the show is heavily influenced by Dickens’ own hand-written directions, as well as his spoken word performances towards the end of his life. Can you tell us more about this?
Dickens’ handwritten directions to himself, although not long (or numerous) acts as a very useful guide to his thoughts. I also took note of the many contemporary descriptions of Dickens’ performances while avoiding any temptation to try to mimic him. Generally, we would find that we had inadvertently ended up in the same place that he did; the characters and scenes would evolve in a way, which largely echoed the descriptions. I think this demonstrates the clarity and precision of his writing. The man knew what he was doing.
The show has travelled three continents, including ten countries, how is the show received in countries that do not celebrate Christmas?
Wherever we’ve gone, they’ve looked forward to it, regardless of the local traditions. The story has a universal sentiment and meaning. I would argue that it’s not really about Christmas, but that Christmas is used as a tool for making a point. Stories are stories.
What was the high point of the tour?
In southern Germany, performing in a hall on top of a mountain – literally, a high point! Also figuratively, when I realised that perhaps half of the many excited audience members who were besieging me afterwards spoke no English, yet they loved it!
And the low?
The moment when I nearly had my throat cut in an Amsterdam nightclub. An uncharacteristically fraught moment in a stunningly beautiful city.
You perform as over 20 characters in the show, which is your favourite?
They’re all my friends, but Scrooge, I know the best. However, there’s a few which pop in only briefly, but which might warm the cockles a tad more; “Scrooge’s niece’s plump sister”, for some reason, makes me think of my favourite aunt. Sooooo cute.
The show will run at the Athenaeum Theatre, which was built in 1839. Do you find that performing in such historically rich venues adds to the atmosphere?
Indeed! There’s something enchanting and wonderful about gazing up at the red velvet seats and soaring proscenium arch and thinking of all the historical figures that have stood upon that stage. Not only the likes of Dame Nellie Melba and Mark Twain have performed there, but also one of Dickens’ sons gave readings of his father’s works at the Ath. Thinking of that can certainly send a ghostly shiver down one’s spine.
And finally, what is at the top of your Christmas list this year?
Chocolate, always chocolate.