Murderer: Beware the games you play
Directed and designed by Chris Weare, Murderer tells the story of Norman Bartholomew, a painter obsessed with famous murderers of the past. Weare answers a few questions about this play, which will be showing at The Intimate Theatre on UCT's Hiddingh Campus until 8 September.
Anthony Shaffer's Murderer premiered at the Brighton Theatre Royal in 1975 and had a three-month run at The Menier Theatre in London from November 2004 until January 2005. What led to the theatre collective The Mechanicals’ decision to produce and perform this particular play?
The Mechanicals had to forego their annual repertory season for logistical reasons. Many of the core members of The Mechanicals were committed to other projects over the 2012 July/August rep season and we were restricted to a single 3- or 4-hander. Many suggestions from the classic repertoire were made, but the challenge of a “thriller” won our vote. One of the most intriguing factors which finally committed us to choosing this particular play was the challenge it offered. Can one make the classic thriller work as live theatre in the face of television in particular? Live theatre and radio once “owned” this genre – can it still work for live theatre? Shaffer is a supreme artist in this genre and Murderer offered us a great challenge and hand in hand good acting opportunities. We were convinced that in an intimate space and clever concept (not trying to do the realism of the text) we could entertain an audience and promote again that live theatre is the most exciting storytelling platform.
A few different versions of the play have been performed throughout its history, with quite a few script revisions and variations in the plot. For instance, the synopsis that appears on Anthony Shaffer's website is quite different from the version performed by The Mechanicals. How did The Mechanicals decide on which version would be performed and were any further changes made to fit The Mechanicals' idea of how the play should be executed?
Circumstance played an important part. Time was a major factor. Carel Nel had a hard copy of a version of the play which we could read without delay. The postponement of the rep season in The Intimate was announced very late and we were determined to offer a work. Immediacy was crucial. The hard-copy version was much better than the revised 1987 version, the synopsis of which I had read on the website. I felt that the version we had at our disposal was excellent (as regards plot) but too drawn out. We made drastic cuts to make the action move faster and we also wanted to play the thriller inside 70 minutes. The idea was to eliminate an interval, sustaining the drama in one “take”.
Did you consider making any alterations to the script or the “feel” of the play to make it more accessible to South African audiences? If so, how were these decisions made? How do you expect South African audiences to respond to the play as opposed to, say, British audiences?
Murder is not a British “thing”, although the best writers of the genre may be British! The content and themes of this thriller resonate strongly within a South African context, so for us there was no need to change it to something specifically South African. However, we did not want to play it as British. We opted for neutrality, or as I prefer to call it, a universal take. It could take place anywhere provided Norman has access to the literature of the English cases. We removed all references to abiding in England. So artist (South African born) is married to Doctor (English born); mistress and detective … universal commodities, one may say. The concept was to frame the story not in theatrical realism but in a surrealism – so we used the Cluedo board game as a spring board for the theme of distinguishing between reality and fantasy.
As you’ve mentioned, the cast includes Carel Nel, who won the Fleur du Cap award for best actor for his role in Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey. What was the experience like, working with Carel and the rest of the cast? Were there any challenges for Carel and the collective moving from such a distinctly Afrikaans piece last year to this distinctly English play?
Carel is a theatre animal – intelligent, creative, skilled and passionate. He works as comfortably in English – although he may have reservations about his ability to play British. Carel proposed this text and was hungry to do it! As a director one cannot ask for more. He is extremely intelligent on text analysis – he is an actor whose allegiance is to the story and his audience above all else, including self. As a result he is always accurate on storyline, he is open to creative choices around story; he is a generous actor; he is an incredible listener; he is always thoroughly prepared; he is passionate about telling the story; he is an ensemble actor and an invaluable member of the collective – he can act; he can stage manage; he can plot lights; he can rig; he can take photographs, write press releases, sweep the floor, move the set, etc etc etc. I want to emphasise that we recognise the play as British, but we chose to tell the story about mankind in English to audiences in South Africa who relate to a world where fantasy and reality often sit side by side.
You won the Lifetime Achievement Award for your work in theatre at the 2012 Fleur du Cap awards. What does this award mean to you? What were some of the highlights and low points in your career in theatre?
This recognition is and will always be a humbling experience. I was and still am deeply touched by it and hope that I can continue to contribute to theatre in this country for a long time to come. On receiving the award I talked about the value of partnerships and again I extend my thanks to all those “partners” who have made this platform possible for me to do the work I love to do. Without those partners I would never been able to make the contribution I am recognised to have made. The award is definitely a highlight in my career; the launch of The Mechanicals in 2008 and this 10th year of The Intimate Theatre (2012) are definite highlights; being present when actors I have taught or directed win awards!
The biggest low in my career is that the Faculty of Humanities and the Drama Department of the University of Cape Town made no attempt to acknowledge this prestigious award. I remain insulted and very hurt by their action, or should I say non-action. I believe I have contributed hugely to UCT – their one-line report on their website was unacceptable.
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