Melly Still, a UK-based theatre director, has been working with an Indian cast to stage Agatha Christie's novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962). Last year, its stage adaptation, The Mirror Crack’d, by playwright Rachel Wagstaff and directed by Still, opened in the UK. The same play, now reimagined for the Indian audience by Ayeesha Menon, is being helmed by Still, who has also been a director, choreographer and designer for many companies, including the National Theatre, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Royal Shakespeare Opera. In the play, a house-bound Miss Mistry (Shernaz Patel) is visited by her friend and rival- in-crime, Superintendent of Police Daniel D’Mello (Denzil Smith), after a glamorous party ends in murder. Set in 1976, the mystery revolves around a fading film star, Mamta (Sonali Kulkarni), who is set to make a comeback. The play opens at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, on Thursday. In an interview, Still talks about Christie and the process of staging this production. Excerpts:
How has the experience of directing your first play in India been?
NCPA has constructed a huge tent in the Sunken Garden since they don’t have a rehearsal space. During the technical rehearsals, we were paying attention to lighting and sound. We don’t want to fill the stage with details of the play’s location; we only make suggestions and leave much to the audience’s imagination, as in any compelling thriller. It’s a play about remembering and forgetting. The set allows for both —the fluidity of memory and the fluidity of playing. As Miss Mistry hears about the events, she tries to hold people and places in her mind. Christie’s stories are very versatile. It is an unusual play about what it means to grow old, and the invisibility many women face when a blinkered society assigns them roles.
You have worked on Shakespearean plays and classics. What kind of challenges does Christie’s writing pose?
Christie’s brilliant, and, sometimes, playful suspense stories are vehicles for much darker issues. I think for Christie, murder is a metaphor for a social ill. Her work has seen a resurgence of late by those creating content for film/TV. Theatre makers too realise she is not your regular whodunnit queen. Unusually, she writes through the lens of the women in her stories. Woven into the fabric of the plot is a quiet bid to address the inequalities she herself witnessed and experienced. Her characters can be frustratingly stereotypical. Every character is at a crossroads in their lives, and has a secret, which takes a toll on them. Christie’s characters also often display bigotry. This didn’t come under much scrutiny until probably the 1970s. In adapting for a contemporary audience, we haven’t shied away from a character’s bigotry — it’s who they are and how they view the world that affects their choices.
What can we expect from the show?
Suspense, something both simple and surprising, and a great yarn.
Does Miss Marple get a contemporary makeover?
In a way, yes. Come see.
How was it working with Indian actors?
Actors are the same the world over. Or at least when bringing a story to life, many of the same questions and the same concerns arise: about travel, money and life, alongside the preoccupation of character, of story and line learning. Theatre demands commitment and invites a pretty consummate immersion into the world it creates. There is much in any rehearsal period that invites passionate debate, laughter and vulnerability. This lively cast have played a huge part in colloquialising the language, making it feel true to time, place and character.
How has Ayeesha Menon reimagined the play for India?
Finding a sociopolitical backdrop that matches the English one has been key in reimagining the play. Christie sets her story on the cusp of seismic social change in the UK (1960). She was both radical and conservative, with her own concerns about the aggression of progress, alongside a frustration with the resistance to change when change is necessary. This tension is played out in The Mirror Crack’d. Ayeesha, drawing on her own experiences, sets the story in Goa in 1976.
You have often worked with stories for children or plays with young characters.
When my children were growing up (the youngest is now 18, the middle 24, the oldest 28, so it’s been a while), I was struck by how theatre was made either for children or for adults, as if children’s theatre implied something less sophisticated. I think the opposite is true. For a few years in my 30s and early 40s, I worked with other makers to bridge the gap between children’s theatre and ‘proper’ theatre, making exciting form-shifting theatre for all ages and for people of all backgrounds and experience. I was also interested in making a professional piece with young actors and no adults.
The Mirror Crack’d will be staged at NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, Mumbai, from January 30 to February 2 at 7.30 pm and from February 4 to February 9 at 7.30 pm. For tickets, visit: www.ncpamumbai.com