Lucy Bailey has murder on her mind. As her production of the Agatha Christie sired Love from A Stranger arrives in Edinburgh tonight before making a break for it in Glasgow later this month, evidence shows such intimate interest in everyday homicide isn’t Bailey’s first brush with death.
The last time Bailey went on the run this far north was with her hit production of Dial M for Murder, Frederick Knott’s cut-glass thriller later reimagined for the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Around the same time there was a bloody take on Titus Andronicus, with audacious stagings of Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, both made famous by their film versions. These came earlier in Bailey’s twenty-odd year career that has seen her move from theatre-music ensemble the Gogmagogs to co-founding the Print Room venue in London to a series of large-scale work on the West End.
Bailey had her first stab at Christie earlier this year, with a production of courtroom drama, Witness for the Prosecution. This was performed in the debating chamber of County Hall, once the home of Greater London Council. Love from a Stranger’s yarn about the secrets and lies that are eventually laid bare after a frustrated spinster is swept off her feet by a mysterious stranger may sound relatively tame by comparison. In Bailey’s hands, however, it promises to poke around the darkest corners of the human psyche and lay bare the extremes of what seemingly ordinary people are capable of doing. This, it seems, was the attraction to what might in other hands be rendered as an antique pot-boiler.
“I think it was the surprise of finding a story and a play that contained such a modern idea,” says Bailey of the play’s appeal. “The term ‘serial-killer’ didn’t come about until the late 70s. Obviously, it’s a very tiny percentage of people who become serial killers, but you’d think there was a whole lot more given all the films that get made about them.”
Bailey has been watching Netflix documentaries on the subject, and has applied her investigations to Love from A Stranger.
“I was surprised by the deviousness at the heart of the piece,” she says. “In all of Christie’s works she’s fascinated by the liar, and by the susceptibility of people to fall for the devious liar. It’s very much Christie’s own view of who is capable of murder.”
To heighten this sense of modernity, for this co-production between the Fiery Angel company and the Royal and Derngate Northampton, Bailey and her designer Mike Britton have updated the story to the 1950s.
“Again, it’s to get it to feel like this could happen now,” she says. “Anybody can fall in love with a total stranger and go and live with them in this isolated place. That could happen today. It’s a contemporary story, but in the end we felt that going from the 30s to the 50s was a big enough jump, and we’ve had lots of fun playing with the social milieu that existed then.”
A big influence on Bailey’s production is Peeping Tom, Michael Powell’s 1960 film about a serial killer who murders women while using a portable cine-camera to record their dying expressions of terror.
“This piece deals with a man who is fascinated with taking pictures, and who looks at everything as a frozen image seen through the male gaze.”
Love from A Stranger has had quite a life. It was originally written by Christie as a short story titled Philomel Cottage, and published in 1934 as part of a collection gathered together under the name of The Listerdale Mystery. The story was picked up by actor/writer Frank Vosper, who gave himself a plum role in his stage version used in Bailey’s production, and which first appeared in London and on Broadway in 1936.
Two film versions appeared, the first in 1937 starring Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding, then a decade later in an American remake. It was seen as well in two separate television productions in 1938 and 1947, with both being performed live. It has been adapted for radio three times, twice alone in 1945 before Louise Page’s version appeared on BBC Radio 4 in 2002.
Christie’s work is in the midst of a renaissance just now, although arguably it’s never been far from view. While adaptations of her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot novels have become staples of Sunday night TV, stage versions of her non-Marple and Poirot canon have packed out theatres on the commercial touring circuit for years.
More recently, however, Christie’s work has been rediscovered in a new light, or rather a new dark, in a way that has exposed her as something of a radical. Her subversions of middle England expectations enact a forensically executed revenge on a repressed and dishonest society at psychological war with itself. That she did this in a way that was page-turningly reader friendly is a deceptive sleight-of-hand worthy of one of her own creations.
“She writes in such a way that a ten-year-old can understand it,” says Bailey. “That’s part of the reason she was so successful. Everything she did was incredibly accessible, even as it looked at murder and deceit in the heart of the English middle classes. You look at And Then There Were None, and you think, what an incredibly brave idea, to put all these awful people on an island and kill them off one by one.”
Christie’s subversiveness has been seen most acutely of late in the series of TV Christie adaptations by writer Sarah Phelps. Her versions of And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution and, most recently, Ordeal by Innocence, simmered dangerously with barely repressed menace. Phelps’ take on The ABC Murders, a Hercule Poirot story featuring John Malkovich as the Belgian sleuth, is forthcoming.
“Sarah Phelps is extraordinary,” says Bailey, “and I think captures the wider resonance of Christie’s work in a way that shows it off as fresh as ever, and that it can be discovered, or rediscovered, by a younger generation.”
Such an aesthetic seems to drive Bailey’s own work, both on Love from A Stranger and Witness for the Prosecution.
“It was a revelation to me just how dark Christie’s stories are,” she says.
While a collaboration between Bailey and Phelps might sound like a match made in an isolated country house full of secrets, given the different forms they work in, it is, alas, unlikely. With two Christies under her belt, however, would Bailey like to have another crack at one?
“I think so,” she says, surprising herself. “Having done two, I initially said that’s enough, but I’ve totally rethought that now. There are all these dark imaginative worlds that she creates. I’m only just discovering that, and I want to discover it more.”
Unlike many of her protagonists, the power of Agatha Christie, it seems, will never die.
“The dark motifs in her stories will always be fascinating,” says Bailey. “The capacity to kill and the capacity to deceive are timeless. These are the things we feed off. Also – and this is really important – at the centre of her stories is love. She talks about love, and the purity of love, all the time. She often has the most villainous characters behaving in the most despicable fashion, but there’s always love at the heart of things. Love and darkness are at the centre of human nature, and the appeal of that will never go away.”
Love from A Stranger, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, June 5-9; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, June 26-30
The Herald, June 5th 2018