Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Ben Horslen: A Christmas Carol

By | Published on Tuesday 19 December 2017

You might, if you’re fortunate, have caught a performance of the brilliant Antic Disposition’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a previous year, as this is, I believe, the fourth time they’ve staged the seasonal tale at Middle Temple Hall, selling out seasons in 2012, 2014 and 2015. If you haven’t, then perhaps this could be your lucky year.

To celebrate the return of the Yuletide classic, and to find out a bit more about the show’s approach, I arranged to have a chat with Antic Disposition co-founder Ben Horslen.

CM: Most people, I imagine, have at least a vague idea of the story ‘A Christmas Carol’ tells, so I won’t ask you to fill us in, but maybe you could tell us a bit about what to expect from your take on it. Is it faithful to the events and themes of the book?
BH: In terms of the story, it’s a very faithful version, with Scrooge at its heart and all the familiar characters that we know and love. The themes of the original story – generosity, charity and empathy – are completely timeless and as relevant now as ever.

CM: It’s described as a musical adaptation. Do the songs drive the plot, or are they extra to it?
BH: The songs are absolutely integral to the plot. The story is narrated and commented upon by a chorus of Victorian carollers who appear throughout the production, acting in a similar way to a Greek chorus.

CM: What kind of music is it?
BH: The tunes are all based on Victorian Christmas carols but with new lyrics that relate to the story. More than twenty different carol tunes appear throughout the show – mostly familiar favourites, plus a few lesser-known ones integrated into the score in interesting ways by our composer Nick Barstow.

CM: You obviously have a fabulously atmospheric venue for the show, but how do you use it to stage the piece?
BH: Middle Temple Hall is a glorious Tudor banqueting hall, full of wood panelling and an incredible double hammer beam roof. The show’s design is minimal, allowing the building itself to become our set in a way that no purpose-built theatre can match. We also have one or two theatrical tricks up our sleeve this year which I won’t spoil!

CM: This is the fourth seasonal run for the show, I believe – is it roughly the same now as when you first began, or have you made changes?
BH: It’s never been the same show twice, we’re always tinkering with the music or the staging somehow. This year we’ve made a much bigger change than usual, though, as we’ve brought more actor-musicians into the cast, so that every note of the music is played live, which brings an incredible vibrancy to the production.

CM: What inspired that initial production? What made you want to stage this? Are you a fan of the story?
BH: The very first outing the show had was as a fundraiser for a derelict church in north London – it was a real challenge as the building had only one functioning toilet, dozens of broken windows and no central heating. It was colder on stage than it was in the street, I think! Then when we learned of Dickens’ connection to Middle Temple Hall (he trained there to be a barrister), we knew that we had to stage the piece there.

CM: I’m sure most readers will be aware of Antic Disposition, but for those that aren’t, can you tell us a bit about the company and how it came together? What are its aims?
BH: We’ve been around since 2005, doing a lot of site-specific theatre, particularly in historic buildings. We specialise in Shakespeare and have recently started touring our productions to cathedrals around England. We love to match our shows with locations that connect to the story, so we have performed ‘Richard III’ in Leicester Cathedral where the king is now buried, and ‘Henry V’ at Worcester Cathedral in front of King John (his tomb was literally in the front row of the audience!).

CM: Do you have any grand plans for the future? What’s coming up next, after Christmas?
BH: In January, we have been invited to the Théâtre National de Nice to take our Henry V to their Shakespeare festival, which will be an exciting new venture for us. Our production is set in the First World War and with 2018 being the centenary of the Armistice we’re planning to do more touring with the show throughout the year. We’ll also be announcing a new production for the summer – watch this space!

‘A Christmas Carol’ is on at Middle Temple Hall from 22-30 Dec. Book your tickets here.


Photo: Scott Rylander