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By Arthur Conan Doyle
Adapted for the stage by Clive Francis
Directed by Ross Jolly
Sherlock Holmes vs the Powers of Evil
A bloodcurdling howl is heard across a cold, moonlit moor; the horrifying, spectral hound has claimed another victim …
When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead on his remote estate, in eerie, seemingly supernatural circumstances, Sherlock Holmes, the legendary, world-famous detective and his assistant, the ever-reliable Dr Watson are called upon to unravel the extraordinary mystery of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous and most popular story, in an exhilarating adaptation by Clive Francis (Our Man in Havana), sees four actors playing all the parts in this gripping, classic tale of terror.
A thrilling, ripping good night of fun, drama and suspense!
William Kircher: WATSON 1,
Watson, Holmes, Coach Driver, Barrymore, Perkins, Beryl Stapleton
Gavin Rutherford: WATSON 2,
Watson, Sir Henry, Cab Driver, Laura Lyons
Nigel Collins: WATSON 3
Watson, Mrs Hudson
Andrew Foster: WATSON 4
Watson, Mortimer, Mrs Barrymore, Stapleton
Lighting Designer: Marcus McShane
Set Design: John Hodgkins
Costume Design: Gillie Coxill
Original Music: Nigel Collins
Cello Player: Nigel Collins
Viola Player: Peter Barber
AV Design: Johann Nortje
DO WE NOT ASPIRE TO MORE THAN A RIDE ON A BANDWAGON?
Reviewed by John Smythe, 26 Jul 2015
This year the Circa Theatre programme cover features a quote from American actor Willem Dafoe, a founding member of The (very different) Wooster Group: “Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasize about a world we aspire to.” So how does this reconcile with the Circa-generated productions in Circa One so far this year?
The homegrown Seed certainly got the audience thinking about the realities versus the fantasies of procreation. A musical inspired by an incomplete Charles Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was a funny and frivolous spectacle that lacked any of the insights into social injustice that Dickens was famous for. The high entertainment-factor of A Servant to Two Masters was garnished with just enough character complexity and social commentary bite to possibly prompt a thought or two about how we live our lives. But none really “challeng[ed] how we think”.
Nor does this Clive Francis adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it in 1901 (the year before he was knighted), to appease the masses distraught at his having killed off the master detective along with his nemesis Moriarty in The Final Problem).
This four-actor version is not to be confused with the much more farcical three-actor adaptation by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, which Ross Jolly also directed last year for Centrepoint in Palmerston North, and which Christchurch’s Court produced last year and Dunedin’s Fortune will stage next month.
Willem Dafoe also said, “A lot of critics are lazy. They don’t want to look closely and analyze something for what it is. They take a quick first impression and then rush to compare it to something they’ve seen before.” So having not seen the spoof version, I’ll try to resist further comparison.
Nor should I compare this show withthe farcical boy-zone hijinks of The 39 Steps which Circa produced in 2009, and which a number of people recall fondly in the foyer, post-show. Likewise the more satirical but over-narrated Our Man in Havana (2011), also adapted by Clive Francis (from the Graham Greene novel) and directed by Ross Jolly – which, by the way, was the only play in this genre to allow a female cast member, albeit a solitary one.
The point of difference (if that’s not a rush to comparison) in this The Hound of the Baskervilles is that all four male actors – William Kircher, Gavin Rutherford, Nigel Collins and Andrew Foster – play the story’s narrator, Dr John Watson, collectively when they are not playing one of the dozen other characters.
It is quite amusing to see them conversing with each other although this is more by way of sharing the dialogue than, for example, debating with himself, which might have been more interesting. But it seems this adaptation is too doggedly faithful to the original to explore such a possibility, despite setting up the ideal device for doing so.
Given the Francis version does not trade in broad caricatures, insanely quick changes and fast-paced action, it presumably aims to entertain primarily through the suspenseful imperatives of the mystery thriller, with performance and production skills being appreciated as the means to that end. But the theatrical device of multiple Watsons who impersonate other characters in order to tell the story – including quaintly coy titter-inducing female characters – tends to work against our becoming imaginatively involved to the extent of suspending our disbelief, let alone empathising.
The Canny/Nicholson version begins, I believe, with the horrific spectre of the titular Hound and the consequent demise of Sir Charles Baskerville (sorry Willem). The tone of this production is set with the portentous cello-playing of Nigel Collins as his shadow looms large on the cyclorama behind. Then we are at Baker Street, setting the everyday scene with quips about sausage poisoning and analysing a gentleman’s cane until its owner, one Dr James Mortimer, calls to report on the death of his friend Sir Charles. Thus we learn of the legendary hound which has returned Dartmoor – where, incidentally, an escaped convict lurks – to terrorise Baskerville Hall.
William Kircher plays Holmes as dynamic and affable, amiably showing up Watson’s shortcomings and barely hinting at the intellectual elitism or sociopathic lack of empathy so intriguingly explored by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in the TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (sorry Willem).
While that may be down to Francis’s writing, I do sense his script envisages greater differentiation between Holmes the Dreamer and Holmes the Man of Action. But Kircher does have an on-stage presence that compels our interest. His other characters – principally the rather eerie Barrymore who, with his wife, keeps Baskerville Hall running – are suitably differentiated and some are recalled with a playful glee when they turn out to have been [spoiler averted].
Gavin Rutherford’s major non-Watson character is Sir Henry Baskerville, who believes himself to be the sole surviving heir to the family fortunes. Back from Canada, he hands over an anonymous note warning him to stay away from the Hall – so Watson is deputed to accompany him there. Rutherford’s canny Cab driver and delicate Laura Lyons are also agreeably delineated.
Andrew Foster offers a strong contrast between the loud and confident Dr Mortimer and the much quieter butterfly collector, Jack Stapleton, a neighbour of the Baskervilles. His Mrs Barrymore is also played for truth so gets her share of laughs.
Along with his cello and sterling service as Watson, Nigel Collins plays Holmes’s housekeeper Mrs Hudson, who is not given enough to allow a strong character to register. Nevertheless it is good to see Collins back on stage all these years after the memorable Wheeler’s Luck (which premiered before Theatreview was born).
If it is not exactly challenging fare for the audience it is a challenge for the actors and their director, Ross Jolly. They step up to it with alacrity and professional flair, as individuals and as an ensemble.
John Hodgkins’ ramped and multi-levelled set with a calico screen and side legs, and sliding panels to denote interiors, is the canvas on which Marcus McShane’s lighting design and Johan Nortje’s AV designs paint the story’s pictures, abetted by sound from Nigel Collins, Ross Jolly and Paul Stent – suitably blood-curdling as and when required.
While it could benefit from being a whole lot spookier, there are a couple of strong dramatic moments – including the climactic one, which is a real crowd-pleaser.
So if you haven’t had enough of Sherlock Holmes and want to discover or reacquaint yourself with The Hound of the Baskervilles – in the wake of 11 films and a TV serial of that story alone – the bandwagon has pulled into Circa and awaits your bum.
A question does remain as to whether we want Wellington’s leading professional theatre to produce so much unchallenging fare. Certainly they are bringing in work developed elsewhere – not through the resources of Circa and the theatre Artists Charitable Trist (TACT) – that come closer to Dafoe’s criteria.
Even if the powers-that-be at Circa regard it as crucial to exploit the whodunit /suspense /thriller genre, why just regurgitate what everyone else has been feeding on? Why not commission a Kiwi writer to develop an ensemble adaptation of a Ronald Hugh Morrieson story, for example, with women included in the line up of course, to prove we are not mindlessly reclaiming the values of the eras we have nostalgia for?
Even better, how about checking Playmarket’s bourgeoning treasure-trove of unproduced New Zealand plays waiting in vain to be read let alone produced? The best-funded New Zealand theatre companies are surely honour-bound to make themselves aware of what is on offer and take the initiative in ensuring the good ones are produced. That surely is the least the New Zealand tax payer (and Lotto player) can aspire to for its investment.
“A cracking good yarn … Excellent … Highly enjoyable.” – Daily Telegraph
“Chillingly atmospheric… this fun show will really thrill. ” – The Observer