From spirituality to superheroes, Emma Hay chats to Peepolykus’ John Nicholson and Javier Marzan about The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society at the Traverse this Christmas.
Could you start by telling us a little bit about the show?
Javier: The story is about a woman, Jenny, who is presenting her PhD Viva and has hired two actors to help her realise her research and bring Conan Doyle to life. Along the way, they try to sneak in some Sherlock Holmes scenes that they have rehearsed and they manage to convince her to join in. The show has a lot of layers. You get the sense that it’s definitely a play, but some things happen in the present, and other things have happened in the past to get them to this point.
John: It’s a play about people trying to put on a play. That was quite a tricky thing to try and get our heads round. One thing we’ve found in our work is that we have to establish the language of the play quite quickly and it’s fun when you realise the audience are going ‘ok, we’ll go with that’ but also a bit scary 10 minutes or so waiting for people to work out what it is that they’re watching.
Spirituality and the afterlife are central themes within the play. What was the starting point that led you to those?
John: We’d done The Hound of the Baskervilles before and it was an interesting world to return to, but we wanted to do it from a different angle. Once we’d started investigating Arthur Conan Doyle, we were drawn to his relationship with spiritualism and also his creation of the great rational mind, Sherlock Holmes, which seemed to be a very interesting clash of ideas that fits well with the way we think today, and probably, will continue to for the next however many years.
You mentioned earlier that it’s a play within a play, and a very funny one at that. Is this a structure you’ve used before?
John: We did a radio adaptation of A Christmas Carol and in that we were the continuity announcers that basically screwed up the systems at Radio 4 and it went out on Christmas Eve as though it was live. What happened was, it came back to the studio because all the audio equipment failed and what went on was we had several celebrities call in and say you have to put on ACC and you have to do it- it’s not Christmas without it. And we did actually do it and that sort of mission – battling against the elements to achieve something, and we’ve lifted that premise into this show. We thought it’d be fun to have people trying to put in a show that keeps falling apart – one of those things being that Javier may or may not have slept with Jenny and my character kind of had a thing with her on the tour. We have a lot of little story lines that overlap and reflect the themes in the show.
You deal with a lot of complex ideas – spirituality, faith, afterlife etc. – and you do it in a very funny and entertaining way. Do you think comedy helps you convey those ideas?
John: A little bit like the relationship between Conan Doyle and Houdini, it’s all based on truth – although we’ve taken quite a bit of artistic licence – Conan Doyle was sure Houdini had powers and when Houdini refused to show Doyle his tricks, he exclaimed ‘you’re just in denial!’ and we found that to be quite a funny situation. When you have two people who come from two different perspectives, they are always going to clash. Comedy lightens it, so it’s not just a dense argument. So it’s comedy in conflict I suppose.
Javier: I think the comedy helps attract the audience. Once you’ve exhausted your argument, you need some light relief and the comedy brings that.
Sherlock Holmes has made a comeback to pop culture in recent years in Steven Moffat’s BBC series, Hollywood films and countless books. Why do you think he’s come back to us now?
Javier: I think we started the whole thing when we did The Hound of the Baskervilles all those years ago…
John: When we did it, one of the crew said ‘you guys should do a modern adaptation’ and we went ‘oh no, it is what it is’ and he really thought we should, and then a few years later it all happened….
Javier: Also, pop culture has really embraced super heroes in recent years, and you could say Sherlock is that kind of superhero figure – he has this kind of irrational gift of rationality – albeit he’s a very British superhero.
John: I don’t think he’ll ever go out of fashion!
Did you set out to make this play quite different from previous adaptations, or was it something that happened along the way?
Javier: The premise already makes it quite different. Hound of the Baskervilles was a straight adaptation of the book really. This one was a challenge – we had to work this story which kind of overlaps – into a show with three characters. But taking it out of the text and creating the lecture idea really helped that, I think.
Although the show itself has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, or Christmas even, it very cleverly reflects the way we think about and/or question faith at this time of year.
John: I’d say particularly to do with the people who aren’t here anymore. And I’m not sure we realised early enough that the show is kind of about people who aren’t there anymore – whether that’s religious faith or the afterlife – this is definitely a time of year where we are conscious of that.
And even just the idea of magic, of possibility rather than doubt, you want to believe that things are possible. I don’t think that’s got anything to do with Christianity necessarily, but because we have it in ourselves. Christmas provides that opportunity where we can just let rip in that way –the fairy lights, the snow, it’s all quite magical and people talk about that ‘festive feeling’. When you actually investigate it, in fact, pantomimes or films we might watch at this time of year actually have nothing to do with Christmas; that’s incidental. It just seems to be about the idea that magic or miracles being possible.
Do you think art can be a spiritual experience?
John: I’ve recently taken an interest in physics and science, and at the moment, feel more a connection with that.
Javier: I would probably say more human in a way, than spiritual. You could see very evocative art that maybe reminds you of childhood or dreams or maybe you’re just completely engaged and absorbed in what is in front of you, and that could be spiritual maybe, but I think it’s more primitive and human.
And I guess linking back to the idea of superheros, immortality and mortality are very present themes. It’s brain food, really, from small theatres to Hollywood blockbusters!
John: The idea of eternity is just hell as well, isn’t it? And if you have more than one partner – like Arthur Conan Doyle, you’ve had 2 partners, what happens? Who do you stay with? Where do you
Ok, so to end on a slightly cheerier note, who would be your ideal Sherlock and Watson (from past or present)?
Javier: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Could you imagine it? They would be hilarious.