And then there was one
Shakespeare. Rowling. Tolkien. King. Seuss. What do all of these writers have in common? They are all eclipsed by the iconic Agatha Christie in estimated book sales, who herself is only outsold by the Bible. Christie’s renowned standalone whodunits, as well as her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot series, have shaped the mystery genre since she began writing in 1920. Her novels have been adapted countless times into acclaimed TV series, feature films and stage plays. On April 14, the Undergraduate Theater Collective put on a production of “And Then There Were None,” one of her most famous novels, which she later adapted for the stage. It is currently the best-selling crime novel of all time. The production was directed by Merrick Mendenhall ’20.
Due to the play’s controversial history, the production was only performed on Saturday night. I went in judging the way the story was adapted, as I am a big fan of Christie’s. The story revolves around a group of ten party guests staying overnight on an island. However, when one is murdered, and the rest of the guests discover they are stranded with no communication to the outside world, they suspect each other as they are picked off one by one.
This play is one that relies on a strong ensemble cast. There are some characters that are more prominent than others, but they should be able to support each other. Some clear tour-de-forces were Noa Laden ’20 as the suspicious Dr. Armstrong, Isaac Ruben ’21 as the over-confident Mr. Lombard and Amy Ollove ’21 as the religious socialite Emily Brent. Laden brought anxiety and caution, despite some unfortunate sound difficulties. Ruben dominated the stage by calming his castmates on-stage with his suave poise in Act One and unsettling them with his inappropriately lax attitude in Act Two. Ollove amused with her exaggerated intonation — it would have been overdone in a professional production but was acceptable in this setting. The environment of college theater lets you have more fun. Blake Rosen’s ’21 Judge Wargrave was a stern presence that calmed the cast down, and Kate Kesselman ’19 was sprightly and fun as the undercover cop Detective Blore.
As the play progressed, it clearly improved. Act One dragged due to some less-than-engaging performances. Lines were briefly forgotten and delivered poorly. However, I choose to attribute the shaky start to the immense pressure the cast must have felt amidst the controversy surrounding their show. But I will say that I was glad certain characters were killed off.
I was very impressed by the overall set and production quality. Set designer Sara Gilbert ’21 made an immaculate set — the study that the characters acted in was well-designed and the space was used well. Kat Lawrence’s ’20 costumes were simply fantastic. They transported the audience back to the 1930s with apt style. These two crucial components really set the mood as soon as the play began. Mendenhall should be credited for her creative flashbacks, and the blood-red lighting designed by Jacob Bers ’20 was effective in making the mood tenser.
One way to confirm that the cast and crew put on a good show was hearing the audible gasps by the audience. If you manage to fool your audience with a story as renowned as this, you’ve told it well. As someone who has read the book and knew who the murderer was, I kept my eye on that character and I have to say that the good choreography was a very subtle touch. That character weaved around the room without being noticed, leaving the scenes of the crime unnoticed in plain sight. Overall, I would say that this was a fun show that definitely got better after intermission. It’s a shame that it was only put on once.
To conclude this review, I would be remiss not to mention the controversy surrounding the play. The performance was followed up with a discussion about whether or not the play should have been produced to begin with, given that Christie had based a significant plot device on a racist rhyme. After unsuccessful deliberations with the UTC board and the African and Afro-American Studies Department, the failure to address the matter led to the abrupt cancellation of all but one performance. While I understand why there may be trepidation about putting on the play, I feel that cancelling it outright was not the correct decision.
The Samuel French script, advertised on their website as appropriate for all audiences, came with a different rhyme but kept the underlying themes intact. One of Lombard’s lines, in which he reveals the extent of his racial prejudice, was cut. The ending was changed to match that of the novel, which is the ending I prefer. Some characters were gender-swapped, which is not uncommon, although one such swap changed a crucial dynamic between two characters. Namely, an abusive husband-wife relationship became a non-abusive sister-sister relationship.
I feel that just because a play has controversial origins does not mean it should be proscribed. Protests should open a dialogue, not decide whether or not students can attend a production. We can acknowledge the play’s history while still recognizing Christie’s masterful writing. She was a product of her time — to dismiss her work on that basis alone strikes me as myopic. To punish the cast and crew by cancelling their shows, invalidating their hard work over the past three months, was a mistake. Has Agatha Christie, role model to writers everywhere, become persona non grata? Must we solely confine ourselves to the uncontroversial? Is this who we want to be as a community?
—Editor’s note: Justice editorial assistant Maya Zanger-Nadis ’21 was involved in the rehearsal process of “And Then There Were None.”
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