A large house stands alone on an island. Ten guests have been invited for the weekend. Separated from the mainland by the freezing sea, they are entirely alone. One of them is a murderer… but who? Steven Pimlott is the man charged with bringing audiences unscathed through the thrills and spills of arguably Agatha Christie’s greatest story, And Then There Were None (Gielgud). Matthew Amer met the director in broad daylight, in a very public place!
Being brought through the labyrinthine innards of the Gielgud theatre, from the stage door to the auditorium, the very aura of the theatre feels ominous. The walls close in. Ropes dangle persuasively in front of you. Maybe it is just because the theatre is now staging a thriller, but the building has really immersed itself in the role. I scurry past the ‘stage of death’ as quickly as I can. It’s not that I fear becoming an unexpected victim – that would be silly – but something about it just isn’t friendly. But then, it shouldn’t be, should it? It is the location of nightly multiple murders.
And Then There Were None tells the story of ten strangers, each invited to spend a weekend at the island retreat of UN Owen. As members of the party start to drop dead, it becomes apparent there is a murderer in their midst, but with a storm set in there is no escape. They are stranded there with a killer.
"It’s grim, but in a gorgeous, mischievous, wicked, funny, entertaining way."
“It gets unsettling, spooky. It’s sinister. It’s unnerving. It works by unease,” such is director Steven Pimlott’s description of the play. I have only walked through the empty theatre, complete with half-built set, and I feel uneasy. To my relief, Pimlott suggests chatting outside. I suspect that he may wish to escape the theatrical war zone that the Gielgud auditorium has become – cables, computers and planks lay higgledy piggledy, ready to be used in some fiendish manner no doubt – though I am more than ready to escape the murderous confines. “There’s no detective. There’s no safety net. There’s no comfort zone. There’s no ‘it’s going to be sorted out in the library by Hercule Poirot at the end. It’s grim, but in a gorgeous, mischievous, wicked, funny, entertaining way. It’s not Samuel Beckett.”
It is already clear how much Pimlott is enjoying the task at hand. As he sits, sipping his water, his eyes, which are the key to his every expression, flicker with excitement. “I’ve been a Christie fan almost as long as I can remember. I read all her books; the macabre side of them fascinated me. She believes in wickedness. She believes that people, unless they check themselves, have wicked appetites which, if they indulge them, lead to evil being committed. She’s not a sentimental, liberal Guardian reader!” This judgement grows out of the fact that this is not a play for happy-ending lovers. Though Christie’s own stage adaptation of her novel altered the finale to suit the war years' audiences, Kevin Elyot, who has adapted this new version for the stage, has remained very true to the original plot in which “they’re all bad and they all end unhappily”.
Though it has been adapted from a contemporary perspective, the play is still set in 1938, on the week that Hitler mobilised his troops. For a play rooted in this time, the themes it throws up are very ‘of the moment’: an unknown killer among you, the sense of helpless fear, even the Big Brother idea of voting off the least likeable housemate, but in a rather more bloody way. Pimlott’s theory about why Christie has stood the test of time is that “She taps into those childhood fears which are mythical and deep rooted. There’s something haunting and surreal about the atmosphere of the story which lifts it above an episode of Midsomer Murders.”
Don’t make the mistake that Pimlott is ridiculing Midsomer Murders; nothing could be further from the truth. He, along with the rest of his family, is an avid fan, and has even made a cameo appearance: “I’m a frustrated actor. That’s what I’d like to do. I just haven’t got the guts to do it.” Pimlott’s penchant for taking to the stage in productions close to his heart also saw him step out at the Savoy as Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore, the last D’Oyly Carte production at the Strand venue. A proud Gilbert and Sullivan fan, Pimlott beams with joy as he talks about being one of the last “Savoyards”.
"She’s not a sentimental, liberal Guardian reader!"
Having graduated from Cambridge with an English degree, Pimlott’s directorial career began in opera, an area in which he has continued to work frequently. His operatic work has been seen as far and wide as London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Melbourne, Sydney, Dortmund, Zurich, Munich and Berlin. Though he enjoys both disciplines, there are clearly different approaches to directing opera and theatre, as he goes on to explain: “If you’re doing an opera by Verdi or Mozart, the dramatic intention is very clear. How you achieve it is then much more difficult. Obviously, if you start with a play, there’s no music; it could go many ways. It could be fast, slow, loud, soft, whatever!” Pimlott’s excitement takes vocal form; he crescendos through the list of opportunities much as if he is creating a little operatic spectacle there and then.
To say the two disciplines are different is one thing, to suggest they are separate another. Though the process of direction may vary, Pimlott recognises that his experience in opera has affected the way he treats theatre: “Because [opera] is often in a foreign language and because the emphasis on the visuals is very crucial, you learn to tell stories imagistically; by the way things look, by the positions people take. I think that’s very useful as a director of straight plays.”
The art of directing is something of a mystery, not just to the outside world, but to Pimlott himself. Not only is he unsure as to what other directors do – “it’s as big a mystery to me as what they do in their bedrooms, probably a bigger mystery” – he is not quite sure what he does himself! He has until 3 November to work it out, as he will be taking a directing masterclass at the Haymarket that afternoon.
After a little more thought, and a glance to the heavens, Pimlott decides that his style of directing has changed over the years. He was previously a self-confessed control freak, organising everything in his mind before the very first rehearsal. These days he is much more laid back: “If you trust the process, trust the people you are with, and trust that you will resolve things in the moment, more interesting things can happen.”
"It’s as big a mystery to me as what they do in their bedrooms."
Once Pimlott’s cogs start turning, they are hard to stop, and before long we have a glorious analogy for the way in which his direction works. “It’s a bit like tuning in a radio station: you start with white noise, then something will happen or somebody will say something or someone will do something, and you think ‘ooh’. You keep twiddling the knobs and then you hear a bit more. Gradually, hopefully, everybody tunes in to the wavelength. If everybody’s being positive, the choices will start to make themselves.”
Pimlott takes particular care to point out that he neither favours, nor rates, one type of theatre as better nor more worthy than any other. One particular critic riled him a few years ago by suggesting he was slumming it while directing Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, while his ‘real art’, La Boheme, was being staged at the Coliseum. The predominantly jovial Pimlott turns very stern at this juncture as a hierarchy of art is something he does not agree with. A brief glance at his CV will confirm this is more than just empty words – it would be very hard to pigeon-hole him into a particular style or choice of production. As he says: “I’m as happy to be with Gilbert and Sullivan as Shakespeare as Agatha Christie as Andrew Lloyd Webber.” This eclecticism, he explains, comes from a childhood in which he was exposed to all manner of theatre and film, and accepted all of it.
Having discussed the finer points of why theatre is, in 2005, still flourishing – “It could be the primeval campfire, or even the bedtime story. What a human being’s presence and voice can do is deep rooted” – the process of directing and the challenges of opera, the conversation strays onto the concept of survival. To be more specific, if Pimlott found himself stranded on an island with nine other people, one of them a murderer, how would he deal with the situation? “I wouldn’t make it! I can’t even say how soon I would go to pieces… frankly, very quickly indeed!” As he finishes his sentence, thunder cracks above the Gielgud and an owl hoots an end to the interview. This is not strictly true, but ‘Pimlott tucked into some pasta’ doesn’t sound nearly as spooky!
And Then There Were None opens at the Gielgud on 25 October and is booking until 26 February. br />MA