True colours

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am

Whodunit? All of us, probably - mentally frisking Colonel Mustard in Cluedo's library, armchair opining on TV crime, or second-guessing judges and juries as they weigh the scales of probability in real-life murder cases.

Sleuthing is what we're talking about, pitting fantasy against logic in a suspense story, twisting the elements like Rubik's cubes until the colours of truth fall into place. British playwright Anthony Shaffer used this formula to create Sleuth, his 1970 gem of intrigue that has been successfully adapted for the big screen twice (1972 and 2007), with stellar names such as Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine and Jude Law - a feat for a tale with just four characters and a fixed set.

Next month, local company Sweet and Sour Productions will stage the play at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, with Candice Moore in the director's seat. The stage actress says she chose the play for several reasons. 'Shaffer's writing is intelligent and engaging so it's a pleasure to work with the text. Also, the play has not been produced in Hong Kong before and I like to put on plays Hong Kong audiences have not seen here before,' she says.

British actor Andrew Swift plays Milo Tindle, a young hairdresser having an affair with the wife of Andrew Wyke (Barry O'Rorke), an older writer who wreaks revenge by embroiling Tindle in an insurance scam. Murder ensues; the police pursues.

Swift, 31, arrived in Hong Kong from London last year as a drama instructor; this will be his first time in the part. He saw a production in London's West End a few years ago and felt an immediate connection. As soon as he heard it was on the cards for Hong Kong, he was on the phone to Moore.

'I was desperate to audition. The opportunity to do a play like this comes round very rarely, if at all,' he says.

Moore, who has just completed a directing course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, recalls: 'I auditioned a lot of good actors and Andrew stood out because of his talent and friendly, professional attitude. He is completely engaged with the part and the process.'

She says the same applies to O'Rorke. 'He works very well with Andrew and they are both very inventive and talented.'

Having landed the part, Swift's first instinct was to rule out watching the film versions. 'I didn't want anything to be tainted by recent experience with the play,' he says.

It may be his first notch-up with Sleuth, but Swift is no stranger to the murder-mystery genre, having played the part of Christopher Wren in some 400 West End performances of Agatha Christie's celebrated thriller, The Mousetrap. The play has been running continuously for 58 years.

'I did its 53rd year. I would say that plays like Sleuth wouldn't exist if books and plays by Agatha Christie hadn't been written,' Swift says, but adds that The Mousetrap experience is now something quite different from the play's early years, longevity having become a virtue in itself.

'It's lasting because it's lasted. It's basically become a tourist attraction,' says the actor.

Swift believes Sleuth will endure longer and, in artistic terms, he's already gained far more satisfaction from the role of Tindle. 'In terms of the drama, it's far more exciting; it's grittier. There are more heightened emotions to deal with and the character goes on a greater journey,' he says.

A succinct synopsis of the play might lie in Shaffer's positioning statement: 'I've always believed that the truth can be shown upside down' - a perspective that poses difficulties for the actor, who has to be straightforward on the surface while coiled round a slew of deceptions.

Swift acknowledges that Shaffer's brilliant writing does most of the work for him in 'gradually revealing the underlying ogre. An actor trying to play too many layers can often muddle the storytelling', he says.

Being on stage for long stretches and in dialogue with only one other character is a distinct challenge, denying an actor the opportunity to fade into the wings and take a few minutes to psych up for the new emotions of the next scene.

'It takes a different technique,' Swift says. 'You have to do a very special type of preparation before you first go onto the stage and be as truthful as you can to that moment, without carrying the baggage of what's in the rest of the play with you.'

Moore also has had to adapt her approach. 'It's not the kind of play that can be micro-managed,' Swift says. 'Candice has been very good at letting us find our way. Rehearsals have been quite experimental.'

Murder is a serious business, so what does the audience carry away from the show? Simple entertainment doesn't usually enjoy an extended shelf-life - Sleuth is 40 years on and still going strong.

Swift suggests that Shaffer is simply presenting an unsavoury inflation of the petty games real people play in everyday life, out of revenge and pride. It's said that Sleuth has been staged every day somewhere in the world since it was first produced, which does imply the play has something weightier to convey.

So if you're intrigued, you're supposed to be.

Sleuth, Oct 5-10, 8pm; Oct 10, 2.30pm, McAulay Studio, HK Arts Centre, HK$200. Inquiries: 5106 5332