When I came across the bit in ‘Hamlet’ where Claudius asks Hamlet the name of the play he has prepared and Hamlet says ‘The Mousetrap’, I knew I was home and dry. Some months previously I had been fascinated to learn from Geraldine Pilgrim that the set of the very long-running Agatha Christie play (it opened in 1952 at the Ambassadors and is now at the St Martins Theatre in London) still contained some props and furniture from the show’s earliest days. Geraldine – an aficionado of the play’s largely intact 50s acting and design style – told me, however, that those parts of the set – particularly the carpet – that were regularly touched or walked upon by the actors, night after night, began to develop bald, soiled or worn patches and had to be replaced on an annual basis. (One does not know whether Management required, after each refurbishment, the actors to emulate the Lawn Tennis ‘New Balls’ convention of indicating the newness to each other by touching or pointing to the fresh materials prior to the ritual assumption of fictional character.)
I learned that the carpet of ‘The Mousetrap’, after a few months, began to develop tracks and pathways trodden into it by actors repeatedly following their director’s blocking (the fixed, detailed choreography of moves around the performance space made by actors as they physicalise the script’s dynamics). It was as if the play, in its legendary London West End form, had become a bubble-chamber trace of the obsessive perambulations of a group of particles or persons in search of a perpetually elusive resting place. The play was not an entertainment for paying audiences so much as an unending ritual the repeated enactment of which ensured some sort of stability for the community. If the ritual repetitions were interrupted or modified in any way the outcomes would be dire, both for the community and the actors.
The Wimbledon gigs are a marvellous opportunity to bench test performance ideas. On this occasion I determined to write a text that would somehow combine elements from Hamlet – the play chosen for the student designers’ project – with the strange time-capsule that comprised not only the text of Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ but also its survival as an unbroken, 55 year stream of performance into the early 21st Century. I had seen a matinée of the show some years previously and had been gripped by its extreme awkwardness and rigidity.
I had long believed that since theatre was such a fundamentally odd contrivance only a comparably odd style of writing and acting was right for it. (The work, in the UK, of ‘Forced Entertainment’ and Gary Stevens appears to derive from a similar viewpoint.) ‘The Mousetrap’ was so odd that it seemed to run on pre-theatrical values. It was as if the show had been concocted in order to disseminate the arcane beliefs of a group that treasured a high level of ritual in its observances. A by-product of this effect was the eery but compelling distance between the actors and their task – so alien to their training were the requirements of the play that the actors seemed to handle their roles with the white gloves of the antiquarian examining an ancient manuscript. You could see them acting – they were not conventionally and seamlessly immersed in their roles. They weren’t bad actors, they just weren’t allowed to assume a contemporary style.
With a gap like this, so baldly displayed, ‘The Mousetrap’ becomes a welcoming playground for intervention. I started talking with the Wimbledon designers about the eccentricities of the play and we moved into ruminations about obsessive compulsive behaviour, addiction, habit and memory palaces. The set would be designed along the lines laid out in the script but the carpet and furniture would be distressed to suggest the habitual usage to which they were subjected. The carpet would have clear, furrowed pathways and the walls, sofas etc would have visible areas of grime where they had been touched in exactly the same places from show to show.
It would become apparent in the course of ‘Elsinore Hotel’ that the country hotel whodunit was actually a play being rehearsed by a troubled theatre director who, Hamlet-like, had been unhinged by the murder of his father and was then driven to a senseless killing.
In order to intensify this theme of directors and fathers and plays within plays I decided upon an unique and selfless course of action. Just as the delicious playlet appeared to reach its climax, I would come onstage, in the role of David Gale, a theatre director. I would say true things to the actors and cater to their needs. Like the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor, I would move through the set and no one would be quite sure why.
It came to me in a rush. I would wear my suit and go onstage. I would be the kind, good director presiding over the follies of the director character in ‘The Mousetrap’ who had murdered a fellow actor as a result of confusing his personal life with a theatre script. Two of the actors in the play would have three personae: Chris Newland would play Giles, the proprietor of the Elsinore Hotel; Andrew the director of the play ‘The Elsinore Hotel’ and Chris Newland, an actor working in the show. Jude Barrington would play Mollie, Giles’ wife; Ingrid, an actress employed by Andrew to work in ‘Elsinore Hotel’ and Jude Barrington, an actress employed by David Gale to work on the show.
Certainty would be awash with instability. The confusion would be bracing.