Stage Door Review

Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse

Thursday, September 2, 2021

✭✭

by R. Hamilton Wright, directed by Craig Hall

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

August 10-October 9, 2021

Holmes: “There is no mystery here”

Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse is the first play to be staged live in the Shaw Festival’s Festival Theatre since 2019. Many people will likely be hungry finally to see a play indoors again, especially fully staged in an attractive venue like the Festival Theatre. Some people will be interested in seeing a famous character like Sherlock Holmes portrayed on stage. The sad truth, however, is that Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse by American playwright R. Hamilton Wright should never have seen the light of day, much less have been revived after its premiere in Calgary in 2019.

In 2018 the Festival mounted The Hound of the Baskervilles by Wright and David Pichette. At the time I stated that “the story, by straying too far from the original, no longer makes sense”. The story of Raven’s Curse is Wright’s own invention and it holds together even less well than Hound. Indeed, it is poorly written in every way from flaws in structure and dialogue to flaws in characterization and, worst of all for a mystery, complete lack of clarity in plot.

In terms of structure Act 1 consists entirely of exposition which means that the actual presentation and solving of the mystery is crammed into Act 2. In terms of story Wright has imitated Hound in that we have another family living in a remote area, the Isle of Skye, that seems to be plagued with an hereditary curse. The difference is that the curse comes not from a supernatural canine but, from a fabulously valuable but lost statue of a bird, the raven of the title, which more than one character is searching for. This notion influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) is combined with the supposed curse of King Tut’s tomb (discovered in 1922), a curse that Conan Doyle happened to believe was real. In Raven’s Curse the statue of the raven comes from the Talisker Hoard, a Roman treasure trove on Skye, accidentally broken into by a member of the MacKenzie family.

The play begins well enough with the scene of Holmes’s Uncle Henry throwing himself into the sea wishing to join his late wife Kate in death. We then shift to the Diogenes Club in London where Holmes’s elder brother Mycroft (Mike Nadajewski) is a member. Holmes (Damien Atkins) comes to visit him there and there is a certain amount of humour in the brothers’ competitive deductions concerning each other.

They have met because their cousin Beatrice (Marla McLean) has  travelled down from the Isle of Skye in Scotland to show them the will left by her late father and the brothers’ uncle. This would obviously be the job of a lawyer, not one of beneficiaries, but Wright feels he needs to introduce Beatrice at this point. Holmes, who is given land and a ruined cottage on the MacKenzie estate where he used to stay as a child, notices that the section of the will concerning him is oddly worded.

Upon Beatrice’s departure both Mycroft and Sherlock deduce that Beatrice is severely distressed by something and may be in danger. In the space of only five years her husband, her mother and now her father have all died. They bring up the question of whether Henry fell or was pushed, and this could have guided the story more toward mystery, but the prologue has already made this question a non-starter.

In swift succession Watson (Ric Reid) is handed ancient Roman nail and Holmes is hit with a brick, both later determined to be from Skye. Alice (Katherine Gauthier), a nurse for Holmes’s uncle, visits Holmes in order to tell him that all is not well at Raven Hall, the MacKenzie family dwelling, and that she fears for Beatrice’s safety. Curiously for a mystery, we never see this character again.

Wright’s interest turns from mystery to the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson. Watson’s wife has died six months ago and Watson’s appearance and mental well-being have severely declined. Holmes believes that having Watson accompany him to Skye under the pretence of visiting his inheritance will help the the gloom off Watson. Holmes’s plan is that Watson, whom the family have never met, will impersonate Holmes’s valet and thus, mingling with the servants, have the chance to learn the family’s secrets.

Any development of this plan is cut short by the sudden appearance of Fiona MacKenzie (Donna Soares), the adopted Chinese daughter of Holmes’s uncle. She has been out of the country travelling for the past five years around the world until (as we learn much later) a telegram from Raven Hall insists that she return at once. Fiona was Holmes’s childhood playmate and seemingly has the same gifts of intellect and deduction that he does. After her sudden departure, Holmes admits, unsurprisingly, that Fiona is the one love of his life.

Thus ends Act 1 and nothing has happened to move the story, specifically the unravelling of the mystery forward. Having shown us that Uncle Henry committed suicide, Wright has not even established that there is a mystery to solve. He has not made us care about the lost statue of the raven and he has not established any idea of a curse since the raven had been discovered long ago and the spate of deaths has occurred only in the past five years.

Having spent all of Act 1 introducing characters, Wright has given himself the task of both setting up the mystery and solving it in Act 2. Yet, once we arrive in Act 2, Wright wastes most of his time in detailing the running dispute the MacKenzies’ loyal housekeeper Nanny Bull (Chick Reid) has with the young maid Lucy (Gauthier again) and the footman Connor (Jason Cadieux) plus the pointless romance between Connor and Lucy.

The one new feature that could lead the plot forward is the introduction of the Dr. Angus Mowbray (Nadajewski again), who appears to be wooing Beatrice against her will with hopes of possessing all of her property. The two promise more than once to have an important conversation, but it never takes place.

Watson’s impersonation of Holmes’s valet leads nowhere. In fact, Holmes solves the “mystery” if it can be called that, with information he had already known in London, i.e. from newspaper reports and from reading his uncle’s will. The notion that Beatrice is in danger proves false unless having a persistent suitor counts as dangerous, and the motive of the one would-be criminal make no sense at all. Wright includes the life stories of three characters in Act 2, none of which has any bearing on establishing or clearing up the “mystery”.

There are hundreds of plays featuring Sherlock Holmes as a character. Why did the Shaw Festival choose one that is so inept?

As with The Hound of the Baskervilles the main pleasure is the performances of Damien Atkins and Ric Reid as Holmes and Watson. Both actors have deepened their portrayal of their characters and their characters’ interaction is really the only thing that holds this peculiarly unexciting mystery together.

As before, Atkins’s Holmes will likely remind audience members of Benedict Cumberbatch’s ultra-cerebral Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock of the 2010s, while Ric Reid’s Dr. Watson is more like the Edward Hardwicke’s down-to-earth Watson in the Granada television series of the 1980s. What has changed is that both Atkins and Reid have lent their respective characters a vulnerability that does not appear in Conan Doyle nor in either of the two television series. This time Atkins’s staccato diction seems a product of his social awkwardness and a sign that he is aware of how awkward he seems. This may not be what Conan Doyle had in mind but it certainly enriches the character beyond the obsessive human computer Holmes can appear to be.

Reid meanwhile movingly portrays the decrepit Watson, still devastated and disoriented by his wife’s death. It is both touching and amusing to see how Atkins’s Holmes, so poorly equipped to deal with emotions, knows he should react in some helpful way but can’t think how. For his part Reid’s Watson knows Holmes so well that he can see what Holmes is trying to do and accepts Holmes’s sorrow and hope as if Holmes had clearly expressed them.

Dramatically, this meeting after a six-month absence of Holmes and Watson is the high point of Wright’s play. Though the cast is uneven, Atkins and Reid do receive some fine support. Claire Jullien is a delightful Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s housekeeper, who seems to care for Holmes’s because of his eccentricities and is able to express outright emotion for the unhappy Dr. Watson even when Holmes can’t.

Mike Nadajewski succeeds at the difficult task of keeping two hard-to-like characters distinct. His Mycroft Holmes is pompous and superior, making Sherlock look an ordinary human being in contrast. As Dr. Angus Mowbray he exudes an air of menace even though is it uncertain in the text where exactly that menace is directed.

Chick Reid’s Nanny Bull will remind audiences strongly of Phyllis Logan’s Mrs. Hughes in Downton Abbey not just because of her strictness and propriety but because we know compassion lies within her outward rigour.

Marla McLean has the unenviable role of Beatrice MacKenzie, a character whose motives become nearly impossible to understand as the action progresses. Nevertheless, McLean delivers her lines with such conviction that we believe everything she says at the time even if afterwards we see that Beatrice’s actions are illogical.

Like Nadajewski, Katherine Gauthier also plays two roles, but unlike him she does nothing to make them distinct. Indeed she plays the nurse Alice in London and the servant Lucy in Skye so similarly that we wait for the moment when the two are revealed to be the same person. As it turns out, they are not. Wright does not help Gauthier by having the nurse Alice drop out of the play for no reason.

Wright has imagined Fiona MacKenzie as the the third main character of the play, a woman equal to Holmes in quirkiness and ratiocination. She is really Wright’s version of Irene Adler of “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891), the woman Holmes admires above all other women. Here Wright has transformed her from an American opera singer entangled with the European aristocracy to a Chinese child adopted by Henry MacKenzie and his wife in Hong Kong.

In trying to make Fiona vivacious and effervescent, director Craig Hall allows Donna Soares to go way over the top. Her forced whimsicality soon becomes annoying. Soares does this whenever Fiona’s wit is meant to be seen to match Holmes’s. Only in her quieter moments, as when Fiona attempts to smooth things over with Beatrice, does Soares show us a more natural side to the character.

Wright uses Fiona to make his play more inclusive. He has Fiona give a long disquisition on how she feels an outcast among the Scots for the way she looks and an outcast among the Chinese for the way she behaves. Wright’s moral seems to be that parents should not adopt a child of different ethnicity. Yet, Holmes points out that if Fiona had not been adopted she would likely now be dead. Luckily for Fiona, being an outcast has has little effect because, for completely unknown reasons, she is so rich. She has been travelling the world for five years buying up enough artifacts to comprise a whole wing of the Museum of Natural History in London. Wright doesn’t seem to realize that Fiona’s collecting of world art to house in London is an expression of the British colonialism he apparently is trying to oppose. As throughout the whole play Wright’s reasoning is confused.

The physical production of Raven’s Curse is quite handsome. In 2018 The Hound of the Baskervilles, also directed by Craig Hall, was overdependent on projections. With this Holmes play Hall has reined in his use of Cameron Davis’s fine projections, even though Hall is still inclined to treat the play as a film as in using a Glassian soundtrack by John Gzowski that runs the entire length of the play. Despite this, the theatrical still dominates in the form of Ken MacKenzie’s ingenious set comprised of five tall square towers which turned and combined in various configurations cleverly represent all the locations of the action.

Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse is a nonsensical muddle and a poor excuse for a mystery. Yet, Damien Akins and Ric Reid are so superlative as Holmes and Watson one hopes that a vehicle can be found for them more worthy of their talent.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Marla McLean as Beatrice MacKenzie and Donna Soares as Fiona MacKenzie; Donna Soares as Fiona MacKenzie, Ric Reid as Dr. Watson and Damien Atkins as Sherlock Holmes; Damien Atkins as Sherlock Holmes and Ric Reid as Dr. Watson; Damien Atkins as Sherlock Holmes, Chick Reid as Nanny Bull, Jason Cadieux as Connor Ferguson and Katherine Gauthier as Lucy Chert. © 2021 Lauren Garbutt.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.