Russ Hunt's Reviews

By Anthony Shaffer

Theatre New Brunswick
April 1998

Theatre New Brunswick's new production comes with a history, and a reputation. Almost thirty years ago, Anthony Shaffer won a Tony Award for a script which, at the time, was hailed as a breakthrough, a play which redefined what the detective play was all about.

The people who said that clearly hadn't been watching playwrights like Joe Orton (whose Loot had appeared four years earlier) or Tom Stoppard (The Real Inspector Hound came out the year after Loot). But even so, Shaffer's play, Sleuth, was intelligent, fast, funny, and scary -- and a hit. Within a year, with a new script by Shaffer, it was made into a movie (starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz). It's been in the dramatic repertoire regularly ever since.

In choosing Sleuth, it appears that Executive Producer Walter Learning was looking for a play that would attract patrons -- perhaps those who've seen or heard of the movie (or rented it, though it's not easily available in Fredericton) or remember the sensation the play caused, or have heard of productions elsewhere. Unfortunately, the sparsely populated house on opening night suggests that the strategy didn't work very well.

And perhaps equally unfortunately, the play itself didn't work very well, either. In spite of a gorgeous and workable set by Sheila Toye (back at TNB after too long an absence), and in spite of all the evident skills of the backstage people, the remark I heard someone make on leaving --- "Even with all that intrigue, I wasn't very intrigued" seemed all too appropriate.

Sleuth is essentially a series of games being played between two complicated and intelligent adversaries, each trying to defeat and humiliate the other in a contest that involves complicated and dark motives on each side. Andrew Wyke, an aristocratic mystery writer, seems to want to make sure that his estranged wife stays estranged, by ensuring that Milo Tindle, his wife's current flame, is able to support her in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Or perhaps he merely wants to humiliate Tindle for stealing his wife. We're never sure.

Tindle is younger, and seems (at least at the beginning) pretty naive; he wants to do what will keep him out of trouble with Wyke, who, to begin the action, has summoned him to his country home in Wiltshire for drinks and conversation. It's not clear to him -- or to us -- just why he's there.

It's a very long time before we find out. This wouldn't be a problem if C. David Johnson, as Tindle, had found a way to make us see why he doesn't simply ask, or if David Renton, as Wyke, had been so coruscatingly voluble that there never was a chance. To make the scene -- and, indeed, the whole play -- work, Wyke has to overwhelm Tindle, and us, with his charismatic, almost insane brilliance, suck us and Tindle along together in his rhetoric. But we were simply allowed too much space in which to wonder about Tindle's lack of curiosity.

This is partly because Renton chose to play Wyke as not only a grandiose and self-regarding fantasy-spinner, but also as a hesitant fumbler, stumbling over his words and searching for the right phrase, as though he were writing his mystery script on the spot. Some of this wasn't, it appeared, playing: Renton simply didn't seem to have enough command of the lines to make them hypnotic, or compelling, and stumbled often enough that we didn't know when the hesitations were part of the role or when he was actually searching for the next word, or line.

Thus when Tindle decides to go along with Wyke's plan -- he proposes that Tindle steal his jewels in order to sell them to support the estranged wife, while he collects the insurance himself -- his decision seems completely unprepared for. It's not clear at all either that he's desperate for the money, or that he's caught up in Wyke's lunacy, or signs on for some other reason: we simply see him say, sure, I'll do it, because the plot requires him to.

Further, during that first act there were many instances where the timing seemed off in distracting ways. As Wyke pulls potential "burglar costumes" out of a trunk, Tindle says "I rather fancy that one" before he's actually seen it. Lines that should have snapped back and forth like a volley at the net instead became a series of long, high lobs.

And the physical comedy wasn't as pointed or tight as it should be. In his clown costume with the enormous shoes, Tindle has trouble coming down the stairs rather than up. On demand, he juggles the oranges Wyke tosses to him, but falls down while juggling for no real reason, other than that Wyke has suggested clowns should do that. And, having fallen, Tindle simply ignores the dropped oranges. Wouldn't the young man, we wonder, have embarrassedly picked them up? And, we also wonder, is Wyke himself the sort of person to pick them up as he moves the costume trunk offstage?

This may seem nitpicking, but all of it adds up to a lowered focus, a lessening of attention, and makes the genuinely funny lines -- and there are lots of them -- a tad less funny. "You talk as if marriage were a game," Tindle says. "Sex is the game," Wyke responds. "Marriage is the penalty." We'd have laughed harder, I think, if we'd had more sense of the conversation itself as a game, one being played for keeps.

In the second act, when Tindle has a pose to strike (he's now the aggrieved avenger, out to humiliate Wyke), Johnson gained some momentum, and found a focus for his character. But, conversely, Renton lost some, and became much more visibly the loser, more frequently at a loss for words, much less a considerable adversary.

In an important way, the whole play is about games -- indeed, is itself a game the playwright and the company are playing with the audience. Because of this we need both characters to be on a par, in genuine competition. At one point in the second act Tindle says it's as though Wyke had won the first set six-love and now he were up in the second, perhaps 3-1. Wyke responds that, no, Tindle's humiliation of him has evened the match, 6-0, 0-6, and I think most of the audience would agree with Wyke. The problem, of course, is that a 6-0 set isn't nearly as much fun to watch.

Those who were there, or who know the script from other encounters, will have noticed that I've given at least one "surprise" away: Tindle's not dead at the end of the first act. Perhaps one of the problems with this production is that it counts on the audience not knowing this, and being genuinely surprised at his appearance in Act Two. It's seductive to rely on the trick of surprise -- we're supposed to believe Tindle's dead at the end of the first act; we're supposed to believe the police are coming when Tindle tells Wyke they are, because the program identifies actors as playing the police. But to rely on that real surprise is like hoping that the audience won't know that Macbeth is going to go ahead and kill Duncan: it means you have less work to do to engage the audience in believing he's genuinely undecided.

That might be okay for the first production, but Sleuth has been around for thirty years. If it doesn't work for people who "know how it comes out," it's not going to work for your primary audience; they're the people most likely to have seen it, or know about it. You have to make it surprise us, startle us, scare us: even if -- especially if -- we know in advance how it comes out. This production, even with all its technical brilliance and its witty dialogue, tried to keep us in ignorance and wound up preventing us from caring the way we wanted to.

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