Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gwynfor Jones. Tony Earnshaw discovers there is much more to adapting Sherlock Holmes than just good casting.
It’s a brave man who dares to put Sherlock Holmes on the stage. Basil Rathbone tried it in the 1950s in a pastiche written by his wife, Ouida. It opened at New York’s New Century Theater on October 30, 1953, and closed the following day after just three performances.
What went wrong? The play, said the critics, was a disaster to begin with. Not for Rathbone the long-lived production made legend by William Gillette in the early 1900s, and which was said to break new ground with its dazzling stage effects. Instead audiences were treated to a meandering tale that cannibalised several Conan Doyle classics and masticated them into an unpalatable mush.
Flash forward 60 years and Yorkshire, not New York, is the setting for the world premiere of The Hound of the Baskervilles, veteran actor Clive Francis’s adaptation of Conan Doyle’s best-known, and arguably best-loved, tale of Holmes and Watson.
It marks a new collaboration. Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre is hosting a production by Oldham Coliseum whilst the latter theatre is being refurbished. For artistic director Kevin Shaw it’s the chance to exploit the recent resurgence of Holmes courtesy of movies and television, and to gently steer audiences back to the canon.
What’s more, it’s an opportunity to show off. The Hound of the Baskervilles skips from Baker Street to Dartmoor. The villain is a giant spectral hound wreathed in fog, heard only from the depths of the deadly Grimpen Mire. Such backdrops are hard to plausibly recreate on stage.
In a snatched conversation between rehearsals with actors Gwynfor Jones, playing Holmes, and Leigh Symonds, playing Watson, Shaw lays out his strategy.
“One of the really exciting things about this production is that the scenic effects are going to be absolutely extraordinary,” says Shaw, a 10-year veteran at Oldham with scores of productions under his belt.
“We’re combining this classic, very traditional piece of literature with some really interesting modern techniques in staging. I think the combination’s going to be really, really exciting and something that everybody will be able to appreciate and enjoy.”
Shaw is referring to the 21st-century artistry of Imitating the Dog, a digital design company that specialises in “quite avant-garde” theatre productions at the cutting edge of digital technology, using projection and film combined with live action.
“I knew of their work and was reading the play thinking ‘In a moment we have to go from 221b Baker Street to Baskerville Hall to the moors of Dartmoor and numerous locations in between’,” adds Shaw. “I wanted to do it smoothly without holding up the action. So I contacted them to see if they’d be interested in collaborating with us. They were incredibly keen.”
Shaw was acutely aware that Holmes has affixed himself within the global consciousness. He’s a tall man, ascetic, with those aquiline features, the hawk-like nose and a pipe jutting out of tight lips. He wears an Inverness cape and a deerstalker. Just like Basil Rathbone. Or Peter Cushing.
Or he’s completely different, like Benedict Cumberbatch. Either way, any producer has to acknowledge the past. Kevin Shaw rose to the challenge.
“Had we been doing this six or seven years ago, we’d be making decisions about whether to go down the Basil Rathbone line, if you like, or to deliberately bulk against it. Whereas now, because in the public consciousness there’s a whole range of interpretations of the character, it gives you a lot more freedom.”
Originally serialised in The Strand magazine between August 1901 and April 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles was published later in 1902 as a novel.
The book has spawned countless versions on film and television. The earliest may have been a German silent adaptation, Der Hund von Baskerville, in 1914 and a century on the Holmes franchise has never been more popular.
However, Shaw denies the films starring Robert Downey Jr are an albatross around his neck. Quite the opposite, in fact. “It’s really useful in terms of introducing a new generation to the character. Everybody’s got their opinion of what Sherlock Holmes is like. I’ve been directing Gwynfor Jones to find his own version. I have opted for a slightly younger Holmes than people might expect.
“When I was auditioning I wasn’t sure which way to go. I saw a huge age range of actors. He’s described as a boxer, a marksman, a man of action. When the older actors were reading the part I thought ‘I don’t believe you’re a boxer and a martial arts expert. You look too old.’”
Sherlock Holmes is a hero to millions. I am reminded of a quote from Peter Cushing: “It’s so difficult to make him not seem irritatingly mannered or insufferably conceited.” It’s clear: Holmes must be likeable. Shaw agrees.
“That’s a brilliant quote. It’s much easier now to move away from that and to find perhaps some of the subtext [as to] why he behaves in the way that he does. In our interpretation of Holmes he’s slightly mannered and certainly conceited but I think we see a bit more of the human Holmes.
“Gwynfor was able to portray arrogance without being annoying. He himself is a very quick thinker which is an element you need to portray in Sherlock Holmes. With my Watson it was important to find an actor who would really be able to engage the audience on a personal level. So I cast Leigh Symonds, a highly experienced actor. What I wanted was a spark between my Holmes and my Watson. The combination of the two of them was perfect for it. I’ve been very happy with how it’s been going in rehearsals.”
The world premiere of this new adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles takes place on Monday, March 12, at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield. 01484 430528.
The Hound howls on
A two-part TV version of The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing, made by the BBC in 1968, was the first to be filmed on authentic Dartmoor locations.
Adapter Clive Francis is an actor, writer and caricaturist familiar from A Clockwork Orange, Poldark, The Far Pavilions, Yes, Prime Minister. He has also acted at Chichester, with the National Theatre and the RSC.
Francis’s play was originally commissioned by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2004 before undergoing a significant rewrite for a tour in 2008. The version being premiered in Huddersfield boasts new effects and represents an entirely new approach.