A tale of two mystery authors

The very first play I booked tickets for on this UK trip was a new West End staging of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. While Christie had written her own successful stage version of the similarly-titled novel in 1945, the producers elected to work with a new adaptation designed to appeal to a more modern audience. Apparently, this didn’t work, and the production was shuttered early, making my ticket an odd souvenir of an event that never took place. (At least I got a refund.)

Enthusiasts often decry any attempt to modernise or adapt Christie, acting as if her plots and settings are sacrosanct and nothing is up for alteration. This seems to me a stupidly narrow-minded view. Christie herself made major changes to her texts for the stage, routinely ditching her famous detectives and, in one infamous instance (Appointment With Death) actually changing the murderer. Similarly, while I think it probably makes more sense to do Christie these days as a period piece, if you are going to film the stories in modern settings then changes will have to be made.

Having just been to a production of The Hollow in Bromley (they just can’t keep me away!), I’m more convinced than ever that Christie’s plays are a tad difficult to stage for a modern audience as written, and that the And Then There Were None team had the right idea, even if they ultimately failed to deliver.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the production — I did. The cast all did their best with some frankly ludicrous dialogue. Kate O’Mara (another well-known Doctor Who alumni, although my first recollections of her centre on her role in Dynasty) was particularly impressive as Lady Angkatell, although it helps that this is definitely the best-written character in the play (and quite possibly in all of Christie’s plays).

Nonetheless, there’s something so essentially artificial about Christie’s scripting, it’s impossible to enjoy them as anything other than simple whodunnit puzzles. Nothing wrong with that in itself (it seemed to be what most of the pensioners in attendance wanted), but it shouldn’t be impossible to have a mystery element and also have believable characters.

Someone who manages that very well is Ruth Rendell, who appeared at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival today. In response to a question about whether she admired ‘Golden Age’ detective writers, she said that she didn’t really consider them as novelists, but as setters of puzzles.

I’ve seen Rendell appear at these kinds of literary events three times now, and she continues to impress with her clarity of thought and willingness to respond to what must be, for the most part, very familiar questions. (She congratulated an audience member for asking a question she hadn’t been asked before: “Are you a shockable woman?”) I’m aiming to transcribe the event for the site, though given my busy schedule over the next week and the fact I haven’t yet transcribed the last time I saw her, it could be a while.

For all her considerable writing skills, I don’t see Rendell getting into the play business. So much of her writing is considered with the internal world of characters that it might prove a messy transition, albeit an interesting challenge. For now, I’m happy that she’s already had one publication this year, The Thief, and has another due later this year, The Water’s Lovely.

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