World’s longest-running play comes to Bengaluru

Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ has been performed every single day, except one, since 1952. Artistic director Denise Silvey talks to Showtime about its enduring appeal

Spoilers are the Internet’s worst enemies. Fans of much-anticipated movies and TV shows wait to slit the throat of anyone who drops even half a spoiler. Which is why Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ remains something of an anomaly in pop culture.

The play was first staged in London in 1952 and has run continuously since, except on one day, and that too because of a power cut.

Many generations have watched it — often together —and watching it is as much a tourist activity in London as visiting the Buckingham Palace and the Westminster Abbey.

The answer to ‘Who is the murderer?’ is an extremely well-kept secret. After every show, the audience is sworn into secrecy that they will not divulge the killer’s identity. There is nothing stopping anyone from walking out of the door and screaming the killer’s name to the first person they see, but they don’t, essentially joining a secret society that wouldn’t let anyone who doesn’t already know the secret know it. Bookstores usually don’t sell the script.

The official cast and crew from West End in London — 32 in all — are now in Karnataka, and the audiences watching the play in Bengaluru, keeping with tradition, are being sworn into secrecy.

In fact, the secret is so well kept that there have been wild rumours about the play. “There was a ridiculous rumour that they change the ending every night. Somebody once argued with me when I told them they didn’t. They said, ‘You are absolutely wrong. I know they do’. You begin to doubt yourself,” says Denise Silvey, the play’s artistic director, talking to Showtime.

Denise says part of the play’s allure is that it shows a Britain that no longer exists. “It’s that Britain before mobile phones, the Britain in black and white films. It’s just after the (Second World) war, so everyone is very different from what they are now. They are just enjoying peace,” she says.

“One imagines England to be that. I think that’s part of its charm. I am not altogether sure it ever did exist.”

Are there references to war in ‘The Mousetrap’? “Though she does not reference the war directly… there are references to rations and dialogues like ‘I have not seen snow like this since 1940’, which must be talk about the war,” she says.

The play has also connected with those with little nostalgia for British history. “The non-British found their own ways to love the play,” she says.

In Mumbai and Chennai, where the play was performed, the audiences were “laughing at lines that people wouldn’t laugh so much at in London”, she says.

Denise, with no knowledge of Mandarin, directed the play in that language with an all-English cast with no idea about what they were saying. “It was weird. We had an interpreter, which was not the greatest experience,” she says.

Changing costumes
Even so, Denise insists, very little has changed in the script from the time it was first shown in 1952 — no matter what the rumours say — except that the clothes change a bit with each country. “The Chinese ones were a bit weird,” she adds.

However, newer generations of actors bring flavours that Christie couldn’t have imagined. “Jamie, who is playing the detective now, plays it as a cocky white boy, if you know what I mean,” she says.

A set of actors never perform for more than six months. This, she says, is because the actors grow stale. Many of them want to come back but are not encouraged.
“They bring something from a previous production to this production and be like ‘The other person had done it like that’. It’s fascinating because you think it’s the same old play but it’s not,” she says.

Adapted and parodied
Over the years, Christie has been adapted and parodied in popular culture in increasingly experimental ways. In 2008, the well-known British science fiction TV series ‘Doctor Who’ had used her whodunit format to tell a story of alien invasion, with her as one of the characters. The 2017 adaptation of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ had given her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, a complete makeover, retaining only the well-waxed moustache.

Gandhi connection
‘The Mousetrap’s’ Indian connection is through Richard Attenborough, who played Detective Sergeant Trotter in the very first production, and is best known to Indians as the director of the 1982 Gandhi biopic with Ben Kingsley.

“He had got royalties for the run of the play. He was a part of it for two years. And then he sold his royalties to fund ‘Gandhi’,” she says.

She remembers an elderly Indian man who spoke to her about ‘The Mousetrap’ sometime in the ’90s, before she had taken over in her current capacity as director and was still an actor in the play.

“I had come out and there was someone from India with his grandson. And he told me, ‘I had seen (the play) in 1956 and I wanted my grandson to see it, so we flew over’.”

No film yet, and for a reason
‘The Mousetrap’ remains on stage, and hasn’t migrated to TV and cinema, because of a clause in the deal signed by the man who bought the film rights.
“Soon after the play first came out, somebody bought the movie rights. But the contract says the film could be made only six months after it (the play) finished in London,” Denise says. “So, somebody has had the right for over 67 years.”

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