Sunday, 28 July 2019

Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer

Reading the plays of Agatha Christie, (such as Go Back for Murder) has got me digging into other classic stage mysteries and thrillers, like Ira Levin's Deathtrap...

And, like Ira Levin, Anthony Shaffer is a great admirer of Christie. In fact he calls her "the most revolutionary storyteller of our time."

Anthony Shaffer is the man who wrote Sleuth, a classic in this genre if ever there was one.

First staged in 1970, Sleuth ran for eight and a half years in London's West End, and for four and a half on Broadway.

According to Shaffer it only ended on Broadway because of the release of the movie. (As he observes, the film version didn't seem to deter British audiences.)

Sleuth is also one of only two non-musical stage shows to run over 2,000 performances in both New York and London. Interestingly, the other is Arsenic and Old Lace, also a dark comedy with murder in its heart.

Before Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer had written one stage play and co-written some crime novels with his identical twin brother, Peter, who by 1970 was already a world famous playwright, having written The Royal Hunt of the Sun, among others. Peter would go on to write Equus and Amadeus, two of my all time favourites.

Although Anthony didn't quite achieve a track record like his twin, Sleuth remains one of the great stage successes of the 20th Century. And another all time favourite of yours truly.

It's also a great title, so I was intrigued to learn that it didn't come easily — the play started life as Anyone for Tennis? which I think is somewhat weak and commonplace, and was briefly Deaths Put on by Cunning, a quote from Hamlet, which is evocative but unwieldy.

The script itself also underwent radical transformations. In its first draft Shaffer had included Andrew Wyke's wife and mistress as characters. The play just wasn't working, until he had the inspired notion of removing both the wife and mistress and making them merely offstage presences.

This is particularly interesting in view of Agatha Christie's own principle that a good stage mystery or thriller generally requires simplification — which often means removal of characters. In the case of adapting her own Hercule Poirot novels for the theatre, she invariably removed Poirot altogether!

Sleuth concerns the aforementioned Andrew Wyke, a successful mystery novelist, and Milo Tindall, who is having an affair with Wyke's wife. Wyke doesn't seem at all bothered by this — but is that really the way he feels? 

Some combative, and dangerous games-playing ensues — don't forget, Wyke specialises in fashioning murderous puzzles in his books...

I'm deliberately avoiding saying too much about the plot of Sleuth because I don't want to give away any of the dazzling surprises. But I should at least quote some of the shockingly funny dialogue. 

When Wyke convinces Milo to stage a fake break-in at his house, he insists on him doing so in disguise in case anyone sees him. Milo demands to know who's likely to be outside such an isolated country house. "A passing sheep rapist," suggests Wyke.

There's also a choice bit where Wyke badmouths his wife, who is of course Milo's lover, saying that she, "converses like a child of six, cooks like a Brightlingsea landlady, and makes love like a coelacanth."

(Brightlingsea is, or was, a dingy coastal town in Essex; a coelacanth is a prehistoric fish.)

Sleuth is imbued with a knowledge, and a love, of classic detective stories, populated as they were by brilliant, eccentric amateurs.

And it joyfully creates a clashing dissonance by slamming these tropes against the real world. 

As a police inspector remarks in the second act, "We may not have our pipes, or orchid houses, our shovel hats or deer-stalkers, but we tend to be reasonably effective."

The pipe and deer-stalker are Sherlock Holmes references. The orchid house belonged to Nero Wolfe. The shovel hat to Dr Gideon Fell

Sleuth is a work to stand beside these greats in the genre.

In 2001 Anthony Shaffer could gleefully assert that there was a production of Sleuth being performed somewhere in the world every day since it first appeared.

If there is one near you, I'd urge you to go and see it.

Failing that, get hold of the play script and read it.

Failing that, you might want to see the 1972 film. But avoid the 2007 film like the plague. It's adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter but is a dreadful aberration. 

But that's another story, for another post.

(Image credits: The Bantam movie tie in and the Marion Boyars edition with the black and orange cover are scanned from my own library. The other covers, including one apparently in Farsi, are from Good Reads.)

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