Great Roles in Agatha Christie Plays
Every actor dreams of taking on a really juicy role, the kind that will make them a star, earn the applause and affection of audiences, and possibly even win them awards. There are some classic roles that every performer wants to play, and every year dramatists create new parts that could launch the careers of some talented actors.
Many actors have met with great success by playing Christie roles. Francis L. Sullivan and Patricia Jessel won Tonys for their roles in the original Broadway production of Witness for the Prosecution as Sir Wilfrid Robarts and Romaine, respectively. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for playing the Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson in Murder on the Orient Express, and Albert Finney was nominated for an Oscar for playing Hercule Poirot. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester received Oscar nominations for their roles in Billy Wilder’s film of Witness for the Prosecution. Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury were all BAFTA-nominated for their roles in Death on the Nile. Joan Hickson received two BAFTA nominations for playing Miss Marple, and David Suchet earned a BAFTA nomination and two Satellite Award nominations for playing Hercule Poirot.
Now, with the release of The Collection series of plays - some of which were unavailable to the general public for decades - actors have an opportunity to embrace some exciting and challenging new roles. In the past, actors who have dreamed of playing Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot on the stage have been limited to Christie’s own original play Black Coffee, where Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp investigate the poisoning of an unpleasant scientist, and a missing chemical formula that could mean great danger and destruction if it falls into the wrong hands. Now, there are two additional short plays featuring Poirot that provide new opportunities for actors to step into the legendary sleuth’s polished patent-leather shoes. In both of these plays, The Wasp’s Nest and Yellow Iris, Poirot must prevent a murder before it happens. Both cases involve lovers in crisis and cyanide-laced beverages.
Actors will also have another chance at the famous role in Ken Ludwig’s new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which takes the classic story to the stage. In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot investigates the murder of a criminal who has escaped the law for a long time, and a train full of colorful characters from around the world are suspects.
Christie’s adaptation of one of her earliest novels, The Secret of Chimneys, was lost and unperformed for the better part of a century, until the script was uncovered in an archive. In this tale of murder and international intrigue, a cast of characters gathers at an English country house. The play is filled with plum roles for romantic leads and character actors to play, including a suave hero, his sophisticated love interest, eccentric aristocrats, a pompous politician, a determined Russian servant, a mysterious Frenchman, and an efficient Scotland Yard Superintendent.
The Stranger, based on Christie’s renowned short story “Philomel Cottage,” has a love triangle filled with great roles too. It’s a taut thriller about an heiress who rejects her longtime fiancé in favor of a charming man she barely knows, but who inspires passionate emotions in her. As the play progresses, a sense of foreboding builds steadily, as three seemingly pleasant people suddenly take on more sinister airs. Two of them are perfectly innocent, but the third is a serial killer. Who is the villain? Is it the strange, charming man who swept the heiress off her feet? Is it the seemingly “nice guy” ex-fiancé who may have unsuspected depths? Or is it the heiress herself, who may not be as sweet and naïve as she appears? By the third act, the villain is revealed, and an innocent person must play an extraordinary gambit to stay alive. These roles provide an added challenge to the actors, as they must initially appear to be rather ordinary in Act One, bring out potential darker sides of their characters in Act Two, then reveal their true colors in Act Three. Perhaps the juiciest role is Enid Bradshaw, the female lead. By Act Three, she’s a damsel in distress, but her intense sense of self-preservation gives her a chance to save herself. “Philomel Cottage” also inspired the play Love From A Stranger, written by Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper.
While Christie is best known for her mysteries, she also wrote family dramas and historic plays. Christie wrote six bittersweet romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, and A Daughter’s A Daughter is the only Westmacott tale to make it to both the page and the stage. Whilst the entertainment industry doesn’t always prioritise creating strong roles for women of a certain age, Christie filled her plays with such parts. A Daughter’s A Daughter is the story of a woman with a grown daughter, and how their relationship takes a dark turn when the mother sacrifices her second chance at love in order to please her child. The roles of Ann, the devoted mother who comes to resent her controlling child, and Sarah, the daughter who thinks she knows best, are a terrific pair of female leads, and the cast is rounded out with a loyal maid, and opinionated godmother, a blustering suitor, and a lovesick would-be paramour.
Finally, Akhnaton is a story of religious upheaval and political machination in ancient Egypt. Akhnaton, the pharaoh, decides to jettison the traditional polytheistic religion of Egypt for a monotheistic faith based on the worship of Aton, the “sun disc.” This upsets the common people and the traditional power elite. Akhnaton tries to shape the world into his preferred image, but the world is not so malleable as he believes. His mother, Queen Tyi, is depicted as an ancient Egyptian supporter of women’s empowerment who believes in different ways of changing the world, while Akhnaton’s wife Queen Nefertiti is loyal to her husband and his vision. The High Priest of Amon is a cunning schemer determined to retain his influence, and Nefertiti’s ambitious sister Nezzemut is anxious to gain a toehold in the corridors of power. Perhaps the most complex character is Horemheb, a successful and respected military man whose loyalty to the Pharaoh is shaken by the fallout of Akhnaton’s inept rule, and who must make a choice between his vows of servitude and the pressure to seize a position of power he feels duty-bound to accept.
Agatha Christie isn’t always given the credit she deserves for creating complex characters, but these newly released plays showcase the layered, intriguing roles she created.
(credit: The Christie Archive Trust)
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