Category Archives: Drama

Murder on the Orient Express

I don’t know, but I would guess that this is Agatha Christie’s most famous book. The Wikipedia article lists a string of allusions to it in other works, and at least four dramatisations of it. Raymond Chandler used it (although without naming it) as an example of how not to write a murder mystery (like he would know! …. oh, wait.) (Sidenote: I’ve never read Raymond Chandler, other than skimming that essay and then getting annoyed at his attack on Agatha Christie. What should I start with?) And I’ve been going through an Agatha Christie phase for the last few weeks – we watched an episode of Poirot over Christmas (The Clocks) and since then I’ve wanted to go on a Christie-reading binge, as well as watching versions of her works: Witness for the Prosecution, a number of other episodes of Poirot (whatever I can get my hands on, really), and the all-star film version of Murder on the Orient Express.

One of the Poirot episodes I watched was also Murder on the Orient Express, and by sort-of coincidence I watched it fairly soon after watching the 1974 film version.  I was worried that I’d spend the whole time comparing the two, but I didn’t. I was very impressed by how differently they treated exactly the same material. Oh, sure, they made changes to the book (documented in Wikipedia, among other places – I won’t go into them here). But what interested me the most was how differently Albert Finney (1974) and David Suchet (2010) played Poirot, without many (if any) of the words changing.

A lot of that is because of the framing structure for each film. In the 1974 feature release, the film starts with the background for the case – the Armstrong kidnapping. It is a blatant, obvious, deliberate comparison to the Lindbergh kidnapping, with Colonel Armstrong even being a near lookalike of Charles Lindbergh. This film is much more about the case, about the puzzle. Not that Poirot isn’t important, but character development is not a factor – plot is. As such, a lot of time is spent establishing the suspects in the beginning – watching them all get on the train – and with the interrogations.

The Poirot episode, though, becomes almost entirely about Poirot. It starts with Poirot doing his classic explanatory accusation for an unnamed case – but this time one of the suspects shoots himself in front of everybody. This rattles Poirot, and he starts to wonder if his methods are still worth using. Not the methods he uses to solve the case, of course, because he still gets the right answers, but his methods of revealing the culprits. This is continued when he witnesses the stoning of a pregnant, unwed woman in Istanbul – bringing up issues of local/cultural justice versus absolute justice. The themes of redemption and justice are very much on Poirot’s mind as he boards the train.

All the details of the interrogations and the case are the same (mostly – again, Wikipedia has some of the variations) but the focus is not on the case itself. Instead, almost everything points to the themes of redemption and justice. Does justice provide redemption? Can you redeem yourself without justice being served? And whose responsibility is it to provide justice and redemption? What happens if the systems to provide justice and redemption fail to do so?

It was fascinating for me to watch such two different performances, and to see how the editing and script choices, and the framing scenes, made the exact same story turn into such very different films. The ending is still the same, the result is still the same, but in the 2010 episode of Poirot, Poirot is such a very different character by the end – he’s doubting everything about what he does and what he stands for. In the film, there is no doubt – Poirot is just doing what he does best, solving a mystery.

They’re both well worth watching, and my craving for Agatha Christie hasn’t faded yet….

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Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

The more I experience Much Ado About Nothing – at one time my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies, although it has since been superseded, I think, by As You Like It – the more I am convinced of two things:

  1. Claudio sucks.
  2. Beatrice and Benedick were “together” before the men went off to war, and it did not end well. I am not sure yet how they broke up, but that’s where the root of their bickering comes from.

This is also a play absolutely filled with references and wordplay that doesn’t exist anymore. I want to do a bit more research about some of them, which may help me figure out a bit more about point 2.

Let’s look briefly at Claudio. He is one of the most shallow creatures in literature. He falls in love with Hero because she is pretty. There’s virtually no indication that he’s even talked to her before the play starts (even though most interpretations do play it as if Hero at least had a crush on Claudio pre-play). He is also far too easily convinced by rumour, insinuation, and flat-out lying that he is being betrayed. It happens at the party, when the most disreputable characters in the play tell him absolute lies that the Prince is wooing Hero for himself, and it happens again the night before the wedding  when he is led to believe that Hero is not a virgin. In both of these cases, he takes the word of people that should not be trusted – Don John and his men – and you would think he would know that they cannot be trusted, since Don John has only recently been reconciled with the Prince! He does not seek out any further proof in either case; he is so non-confrontational that he is more willing to believe ill of his friend and his love than to do anything in his own behalf! He does not deserve Hero, at all, and it’s so frustrating to watch, read, or hear.

Now on to Beatrice and Benedick. They clearly know each other before the play starts, in a way deeper than Hero and Claudio – Beatrice “promised to eat all of his killing”, there “is a kind of merry war” between them, and the best quotation: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.”

Their breakup I get from things like their mutual protestations of never marrying, especially to each other. It’s definitely a form of protesting too much, like they’re trying to convince each other and themselves. They’re also very willing to believe that the other loves them based on overheard lies and rumours, as if they had already had these suspicions themselves – but they, unlike Claudio, ultimately confront the other with this information and get confirmation. The quotation above also gives clues to it – false dice, as if there was some sort of misunderstanding, the idea that Beatrice has lost Benedick’s heart and the implication that it is a more distant losing than simply their conversation at the party.

There are a few lines that I do not have cultural context for yet, to know if they support or alter my argument: “Signor Mountanto” – is there any symbolic significance to the name “Mountanto”? There’s also a line that’s cut out of most performances that I’ve seen/heard: Beatrice says “He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.” I….have no idea what that means. What is a “jade’s trick”, that Beatrice accused Benedick of using? Why does Benedick refer to Hero as “Leonato’s short daughter”? There are others, I am sure…..I will need to do a closer rereading and some research.

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Dickens, Dorrit, and Davies

I have been in a vaguely Dickensian mood for the last little while, for a few reasons:

  • There is a new biography of Dickens out now – I have a few of the reviews of it bookmarked but haven’t read them yet.
  • I just watched the recent version of Little Dorrit (which is what I really want to talk about).

I freely admit that the main reason I wanted to watch Little Dorrit was because of Matthew Macfadyen, who I love. (He has a beautiful voice. Mmm….) But I also wanted to watch it because I like Andrew Davies as a screenwriter (more on that below), I really liked Bleak House both as a book and a film/series, and I don’t hate Dickens in general. And Matthew Macfadyen was really good – all of the acting was really good, as expected – even if Arthur’s realization of his true feelings for Amy was a bit out of the blue.

It didn’t sparkle, though. There was nothing in it that made me want to go out and actually read Little Dorrit – which, for me, is very, very unusual. When I see an adaptation of a book, I usually want to go out and read the book for myself, either because the movie was so good that I want to re-experience it through the book, or to find out if the book was as good as the movie, or to see what they changed between the book and the movie, or (if the movie was bad) to see if the book is better than the movie. This adaptation was good, but really didn’t make me want to actually read Little Dorrit. And it seemed like every other Dickens tome ever.

I use the word ‘tome’ specifically, because there are certain works of Dickens that are long, complex stories that deal with specific social issues of the early-to-mid 19th century. A Christmas Carol is very different, as is The Pickwick PapersChristmas Carol is much shorter*, and The Pickwick Papers are really short stories or vignettes in one long collection. The others are all very, very similar. This is not news to me, but it was reinforced by watching this version of Little Dorrit and feeling like it was Bleak House but set in and around the Marshalsea instead of Chancery. I never really cared about any of the characters’ backstories – which is bad in a plot that relies so much on character history. The stock characters were flatter than I remember some of Dickens’s other stock characters being and, for the most part, were obviously only there to advance a storyline. [Signor Cavaletto was an exception to this, but I don’t know if that was the actor or the writing or both.]

I also don’t understand the concept of debtor’s prisons. If you can’t pay your bills, why was it a good idea to lock you away and keep you from working to earn money to pay your bills? The idea of Georgia or other transport makes more sense to me – put them in a situation where they have no choice but to work off their debts instead of racking up more.

Anyway, to touch on Andrew Davies’s reaction to the BBC – ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. And the comment about only doing ‘big, popular warhorses’ is kind of ironic from the guy who adapted Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Emma, Vanity Fair, and several Dickens novels. Even if the Dickens novels aren’t the best-known ones, Dickens is by definition a ‘warhorse’. But mostly, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. I would love it if the BBC or someone would do an adaptation of a Middle English poem – like one of the early Arthurian stories that are so full of blood and gore, or another version of the Canterbury Tales, or some of the more fantastical ones with magic, like Sir Launfal or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or even one of the ones that aren’t so commonly taught. Or go back to the early days of novels, if you must do a longer serial adaptation. Do something from the 18th century, like Evelina or Moll Flanders or something like that. Also, to go back to my earlier point, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. The Great Gatsby is period drama. Lucky Jim can be period drama. The TV show Life on Mars – set in the 1970s – and Ashes to Ashes – its sequel in the 1980s – are period dramas. Anything not set in ‘the present day’ is a period drama. By some standards even science fiction could be considered period drama – it’s just that the period is the future. Basically, Andrew Davies, stop whining and shut up.

*A Christmas Carol is excellent. It’s my favourite Dickens book. It’s a short list – Dickens is way too wordy for me and I swear there are sentences in David Copperfield that don’t have verbs. Bleak House is mostly beautiful although falls into the trap of too many characters so that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on during the middle part. I still want to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days, but doubt I’ll read the others without massive motivation (like having to teach it someday). But, yeah, A Christmas Carol is my favourite Dickens book. That being said, do we really need a new movie and/or TV version of A Christmas Carol every year? The story is played out. Give it a rest for a while. Please.

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Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

This is one of my all-time favourite plays to read. I ran across a copy at my grandparents’ house when I was a teenager and devoured it. I don’t know whether it was the Derbyshire connection or the math or the Byron (even though I hate Byron) or just the sheer genius that is Tom Stoppard, but I adored it from the minute I read it.

And I got to see it, this weekend, in London, in a production that has gotten nothing but good reviews. It deserves every one of them. The play is, of course, amazing, and the cast was incredible. There were quite a few people who are not huge stars or big names, but more “Oh, yeah, the guy from the thing!” type actors. Which is good because then you can focus on the show itself and not necessarily on being starstruck at seeing Matt Damon or Brendan Fraser or Alan Rickman or Charlton Heston or whoever you’re seeing. The only ‘weak’ point in the cast was the girl who played Thomasina [Jessie Cave, who was in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince] and it’s hard to tell whether it was her or the character that bothered me. She wasn’t as natural as the other actors, but then her character is 13 for most of the play so she may not have needed to be. Other people-I-recognized in the cast included Lucy Griffiths (Maid Marian in the recent Robin Hood series), Hugh Mitchell (Colin Creevey in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), and Neil Pearson (Richard Finch in the Bridget Jones movies). Ed Stoppard, who played Valentine, I’d heard of (since he’s Tom Stoppard’s son, he’s gotten a bit of press for this play) but hadn’t seen in anything. He was fantastic – I understood Valentine as a character much more because of his performance.

It’s hard to explain what a Stoppard play is about. The people sitting next to me asked for a plot synopsis, and I told them that it was almost impossible to synopsize a Stoppard play, especially one that jumps time the way that Arcadia does. (Here is Wikipedia’s summary, though, if you’re interested.) It’s about math and science, literature, and sex. It’s about chaos theory, and how historically-based literary criticism is ultimately wrong. It is a working definition of dramatic irony, and – especially in a performance like this one – proof that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to literature. This is a play where the heat just keeps building and building, and it never comes anywhere near room temperature. It’s the type of play that makes higher-level math understandable, at least to me. It’s the type of play that makes me wish I’d studied it (math) more. It’s the type of play that proves how a good writer can be educational and interdisciplinary without being pedantic.

It is a play that combines ideas and characters. Valentine wouldn’t be as interesting if he weren’t passionate about math as he is, and if he weren’t so conflicted about the impossibility of Thomasina’s work. Bernard wouldn’t be interesting at all if he weren’t so passionate about Byron and his ‘discovery’. And Septimus….I was in love with Septimus after reading the play, but even more so now that I’ve seen him brought to life [especially by Dan Stevens, who is now on my ‘Watch him in anything he does’ list]. He’s especially good in the last scene, with Thomasina: he knows that it’s wrong, he knows he shouldn’t give in, and yet he can’t stop himself. It’s heartbreaking, and you could see the struggle, and the inevitability, in his performance.

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