Agatha Christie is the best selling mystery novelist of all time; she is the playwright of the world's longest running play – The Mousetrap – and is the undisputed Queen of Crime. She also created two of the most recognizable sleuths in detective fiction: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple – and it is the latter that will grace the Comedy Theatre stage later this month in Christie's 1950 masterpiece, A Murder Is Announced.
In a tantalizing Christie, the villagers of Chipping Cleghorn are invited to a murder via a strange notice that appears in the morning paper: "A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 13th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. All, including Miss Marple, are agog with curiosity but none more so than the clueless owner of Little Paddocks, Letitia Blacklock. It is a classic Christie filled with twists, turns, mystery, intrigue and Christie's trademark – the red herring. VCA graduate Elizabeth Nabben plays Blacklock's cousin Julia Simmons who is described by Nabben as sassy and mysterious. "On the surface she is all apathy and wit but there are secrets and vulnerability not too far beneath," says Nabben. "She is stylish, she values fashion and money, and is a strong-willed survivor. She furthers the story by stirring, antagonising, causing mischief to amuse herself, and creating intrigue with her suspicious antics."
Nabben is possibly best known for her work as Grace Taylor in Winners and Losers but has worked on both the STC and MTC stages. Her desire to become an actor was spurred on by the ABC TV series Seachange. It was 1996 and Nabben was a seven year old standing silently in the hall watching the show through a crack in the door until one day her Mum decided she was old enough to watch it out of hiding. "From 7.30-8.30pm on a Sunday night, Milo in hand, we would savour every character, be moved to laughter and tears, and I remember thinking I either want to live my life as fully as those characters do, or at least have a job where I get to pretend to," confides Nabben. "So it was the Seachange writers and the team of incredible actors on that show that inspired me to become an actor. I loved the notion of a true community in a small town, the quirky ensemble, which is what I’m enjoying about A Murder is Announced; the inter-dependent villagers in a small world, both frustratingly claustrophobic and comforting. I must add that my first acting role was in primary school as Agatha Christie’s Poirot with a drawn-on moustache, which circles nicely to playing Julia (a girl, finally, with a great hair-do) in A Murder is Announced."
Nabben considers herself fortunate to have had incredibly challenging and fulfilling roles since graduating in 2010. Upon graduating, she played the lead in Malthouse Theatre’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, where whole monologues were turned into song and she was trained to harmonize with an Opera singer. Earlier this year, she performed in Dance Better at Parties at STC where she trained for a year in ballroom dancing to be able to convince as an instructor; this was followed by MTC’s The Crucible where she played Abigail opposite David Wenham and Anita Hegh.
Dance Better was certainly a test of endurance for Nabben involving, amongst other elements, two hours of ballroom, four hours of dancing, impro, editing the script on the floor and rehearsing scenes in the afternoon. "It was one of my favourite theatre experiences because we felt a real ownership over our characters and the play itself from being involved in workshops, and it dealt with the grieving process through dance, which I found a profound and worthy subject matter," she says. "And if you didn’t warm up thoroughly, to be totally centred and balanced, you’d literally fall over on stage, so I learnt the true meaning of discipline. And I learnt what complicity is working opposite Stevie; you develop a deep trust and connection when you dance with someone, which made it a very special experience."
Nabben has been excited by the opportunity to learn and grow with each new project and, it would seem, new projects are never far away. She was performing at STC when asked to audition for A Murder is Announced, so she watched Agatha Christie telemovies on YouTube every day for a week – not too much of a sacrifice, she admits! "The audition was fast, I hardly remember it, except for Darren (Director Darren Yap) being so supportive and warm, and three days later I was offered the role."
The audition was not the only thing that was fast – the rehearsal period for this complex, full length thriller was only three weeks. A challenge, says Nabben, to capture the truth as well as the heightened style of twelve distinctive characters in such a short time. "However Darren managed to make us feel that we still had time to play and explore, not to lock anything down too quickly and let us build it organically, which really helps you own it as an actor in a long run," Nabben explains. "And it means we’re all still inspired to keep playing throughout the season. This play doesn’t work without pace, you lose the tension and the humour if it slows down. So Darren would get us to do ‘speed runs’ to feel how pace can carry you. It also doesn’t work without vocal clarity and crisp consonants, so thorough vocal warm-ups are needed. We also found that the play loses its sharpness if you don’t recognise that these characters are archetypes, so we were encouraged to explore the stereotype whilst keeping the psychological truth and vulnerabilities of each person, an exciting challenge."
While Christie has written 16 or so plays (some of which are based on her own novels) she did not pen this one which has been adapted for the stage by British writer Leslie Darbon. Christie fans will not be disappointed though says Nabben: "I think Darbon has done a great job condensing the novel (a very complex plot with many, many names!), and distilling the attitudes, quirks and humour of the characters. I think they’ll enjoy the unfolding drama, the twists and turns, and how Leslie has honed on certain aspects of the novel. There’s some very funny dialogue too."
Christie's work continues to accumulate accolades even, as is the case here, more than 60 years after the story was written. There is certainly something about Christie's brand of detective fiction that appeals and lingers. Nabben concurs; "I think nobody does a twist quite like Agatha Christie. Her stories are so beautifully crafted (and confusing!) that even if you’ve seen it before you can’t quite remember who did it or how, so you can enjoy them again and again. Plus everyone is so quirky, her supporting characters are so delightfully rounded, and so dodgy!"
Nabben is also quick to point out the feminist undertone in Christie's work citing the very strong and independent female characters like Miss Marple (Judi Farr), Letty Blacklock (Debra Lawrance), Phillipa Haymes (Libby Munro) and her own character Julia Simmons. In fact, many of Christie's works include brave, smart, independent, witty, resourceful and daring heroines who take control of the investigation. It is often the case that this woman will have a young man on hand to share the danger, but she is never subservient to him, and it's usually her insight and courage that saves the day. "Come to think of it, none of the women in our play are attached to or defined by a man; all are using their intelligence and resourcefulness to survive in post-war Britain," Nabben says.
Nabben believes audiences love Christie because, as a collective, we are still fascinated and frightened by murder, but in a Christie story we can encounter it with a psychological understanding bordering on empathy for the murderer, and the ‘why’, minus the gore.
A secondary fascination, feels Nabben, could be that extra dimension of nostalgia, not only for a lost era of manners and refinement, but for a time perceived as being more community focused, represented in the containable world of the ‘village’, where the elderly are proved valuable and worth respect.
Nabben promises that audiences have never seen a Miss Marple like Judi Farr. "After seeing her I can hardly watch the others on the BBC versions. She’s perfect, with the energy of a playful child, the determined ruthlessness of a pragmatic post-war woman, and the wisdom of the archetypal ‘elder’," Nabben enthuses. "Sit in the first few rows and you’ll get a glimpse of those blue eyes sparkling with mischief and intelligence."
Producers Michael Coppel, Louise Withers and Linda Bewick brought The Mousetrap to our shores to rave reviews when the performing rights were finally released marking its 60th anniversary. A Murder Is Announced has already proven to be a huge success in Sydney and Melbourne audiences will soon be tantalized by Christie's masterpiece before it moves onto Brisbane and Canberra.
"The play is a true ensemble," says Nabben, "where you’ll fall in love with the fiery Hungarian cook, the widowed Blanche-Dubious-esque Mrs Swettenham, the bumbling Bunny, the long suffering aspiring writer Edmund, I could go on… They are beautifully written and performed characters, who are flawed and suspicious but with big (though reservedly English) hearts. And you are actively engaged as an audience member; you have to look for clues, listen and watch like a detective, because at interval you’ll be guessing, eliminating, hypothesising. And you’ll get transported back to the 1950’s, with nostalgic tunes, stunning costumes and a detailed and cosy cottage, and some gun shots to boot…"
October 30 – December 1
Images: James Morgan