The game’s afoot once more in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Mystery plays, a regular feature of the programming at the Shaw Festival during the tenure of artistic director Christopher Newton last century, have returned under the theatre company’s new head honcho, Tim Carroll, now in his sophomore season.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, which opened this weekend on the Shaw’s main stage, is a 2013 stage adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 crime novel, penned by American actors R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette.
The chief charm of the production is Damien Atkins, an actor who has long struck me as Canada’s answer to Benedict Cumberbatch, and now gets to show us his own Sherlock Holmes.
Atkins gives the audience exactly what they want: an eccentric, superior smarty-pants with a soupcon of inner sadness that must be constantly covered up by either cocaine or crime-solving. The wiry actor is a pleasure to watch every moment he’s on stage – whether walking over a foot cushion to cross his office, because it’s the shortest distance between two points; or snatching a piece of bacon from the breakfast plate of Dr. Watson (Ric Reid) amid a delirious fit of deduction.
The mystery Sherlock has to solve here is close to the one in original Conan Doyle story – with a few twists to keep it fresh.
Sherlock and Dr. Watson are visited at 221B Baker Street by Sir Henry Baskerville (Kristopher Bowman), a Canadian farmer who has inherited a Devonshire estate after the sudden death of his uncle.
That uncle, Sir Charles, had a heart attack walking on the moors, but a neighbour, Dr. James Mortimer (Graeme Somerville) believes he may have been frightened to death by the giant spectral hound said to curse the Baskerville clan. Does this devil dog exist – and will Sir Henry (who’d prefer you call him Hank, thanks) be next on its hit list?
Sherlock dispatches Watson to Devonshire to investigate on his behalf – where the sidekick interviews suspicious servants (Patrick Galligan and Claire Jullien) and neighbours (Gray Powell, Natasha Mumba and Cameron Grant).
The major frustration of this adaptation is that the character of Sherlock is absent for all of this. Reid’s Dr. Watson is a fine straight man, but left to his own devices for a whole act, the lack of wit or depth in Wright and Pichette’s script becomes apparent. It’s well-made, but you wouldn’t say it’s particularly well-written.
Director Craig Hall also runs Vertigo Theatre, a unique theatre company housed in the Calgary Tower that devotes itself to stage mysteries. His experience with this type of work shows – he knows how to pace the show, balance the light and the dark and not look for subtlety where none exists.
I also enjoyed Wright and Pichette’s running gag of having Sherlock constantly quote Shakespeare without being aware that he’s quoting Shakespeare. It seems a nod to the fact that many people believe the line “the game’s afoot” (which Dr. Watson gets to say here) originates with Conan Doyle, when, in fact, it comes from Shakespeare’s Henry V (which the Shaw Festival is also mounting this year).
Dana Osborne’s design for the moors and the Grimpen Mire near the Baskerville estate is suitably creepy. Most of the other locations are conjured by Jamie Nesbitt’s (suitably?) cheesy projections, which fill screens that hang in a semi-circle around the stage area. The same screens were used in The Magician’s Nephew and in Stephen Fry’s Mythos (from which I deduce a certain budgetary restraint this season).
What else to say about The Hound of the Baskervilles – other than I look forward to seeing actors of the calibre of Powell and Mumba in weightier work again soon? Perhaps mystery plays have been chased from most respectable theatre companies by critics disgruntled there’s not all that much you can say about them in a review. You can’t even really recount much of the plot without spoiling the fun.
So forgive me for using my remaining space here for a nitpick of the script: when Hank arrives on the scene, the writers have Sherlock deduce from his appearance that he is not only from Canada (as he is in the original story), but that he is from “the Province of Alberta. Nearer Edmonton than Calgary, I should think.”
The problem, my dear Watson, is that the play is set in 1890, and Alberta did not become a province until 1905.