A thrilling new adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s epic second full-length Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of Four opens a three-night run at Lighthouse on 31 January. The Blackeyed Theatre production has been adapted and directed by Nick Lane, who takes some time to explain how he brought it to the stage.
Q: How did you approach adapting The Sign of Four?
A: Very carefully! I wanted to get the elements of a good procedural thriller in there, and also I was keen on retaining the essence of Holmes; his unusual manner, his relationship with Watson and so on. This is one of the early novels - it's the second full length book after A Study in Scarlet - so Holmes and Watson's relationship is in its early stages, I'd say. They're still young men so I wanted to capture that friendship without it being too stale and stuffy.
Q: For you, what’s the key factor of a great Sherlock Holmes story?
A: The friendship between these men is a key element. I was keen on getting across how fond they are of one another, despite their obvious differences. I think it's probably an easy trap to fall into to portray Watson as a bit of a buffoon – comic relief, almost. It's never how I've seen him. Not only is he our narrator (since all the stories are written from his unique perspective), he's also a man with significant medical knowledge. I'd liken it to getting into Oxford to study Physics only to find that your lab partner is Stephen Hawking!
Q: Tell us how you see the main characters.
A: In selecting our cast, we had to draw out key aspects of each character. With Holmes, it's a measure of coolness – he's not lacking in passion; he just hides it remarkably well behind his intellect. Watson is almost the opposite – he is a man who cannot hide his emotions; they often guide his actions. You're also looking to find two actors that gel together well. Mary Morstan brings the case to the pair and becomes Mary Watson in future stories. Doyle doesn't focus a huge amount on her in this book, but I was looking for someone with spirit who wore their heart on their sleeve just as openly as Watson does.
Q: In what other ways have you diverged from the source material?
A: The origins of the crime in The Sign of Four are rooted in the Indian rebellion of 1857; a time when British Colonial rule was brutal, draconian and cruel. Of course, Doyle was writing for a Victorian readership who didn't take quite such a revisionist view, but I wanted to give the characters, and thereby the audience, a sense that they at least were aware of what was going on and didn't like it. You run the risk, doing something like that, of veering too far away from the source material so it's a fine line; how far do you go, how much do you say and so on.
Q: Why do you think Sherlock Holmes remains so prominent in popular culture?
A: I've always been a fan of crime fiction and I love detail and nuance in character – Doyle provides both expertly. The relationships are beautifully crafted and the cases leave you exactly where Watson is; marvelling at Holmes's logic (and equally fascinated by how Doyle created the mysteries in the first place). This text really does stand the test of time. I think that so long as people remain fascinated by human weakness and the tendency to turn to crime to suit a criminal's ends there will always be a place for Sherlock Holmes. His emotionless logic and whiplash intelligence will always cut through the emotions of crime.
Q: What should audiences expect?
A: Blackeyed Theatre often use an ensemble cast, with the few actors playing multiple roles. We also like to use music in interesting ways. This production will blend recorded and live sound, which I'm really excited about. I want to give audiences an exciting evening of high quality theatre. It will be stylish, slick, fastmoving and include one or two surprises!