Week 19: Howard Brenton’s Christie in Love (1969)
Brenton’s latest play Lawrence After Arabia, which opened at the Hampstead Theatre last week, has been criticised by some as all talk and no show. As well as being dry, some have also attacked the theatre’s decision to programme a play written by a white man which marks the centenary of the Arab Revolt. Looking back to one of Brenton’s first plays Christie in Love, about the conviction and hanging of murderer John Christie, you can see that it shows the work of a young playwright confidently playing with the possibilities of theatre.
The story is perhaps more famous from Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place, which captures eerie setting of the falsely accused’s hanging and which contains a creepy central performance from Richard Attenborough. But before that, Brenton’s play looks at the brutality of the murders conflicting with the cold professionalism of Christie. First programmed by David Hare and Tony Bicat’s Portable Theatre Company when they were looking for a play about evil, and later performed at the Royal Court, the play is performed in the round in a sort of chicken coup enclosure. The floor is strewn with masses of scrunched up paper, from under which Christie pops out.
This non-naturalistic, fluid space, Brenton writes, is part of ‘the Theatre Machine’ or a ‘fly trap’ with which to draw in the audience. He also plays with the characters being realistic and cartoonish. The two other characters, a constable and inspector, are like a Vaudeville double act recounting filthy limericks whilst searching for bodies in the garden; one of them ventriloquises a doll to represent one of Christie’s victims; Christie first appears with a huge papier maché head. But at other times, characters speak with eloquence and compassion. Christie, for instance, conducts himself with military style duty. And his interrogators speak of how they see the ‘sinks and sewers of the minds of men and women’ as a regular part of their job.
It’s a play which can be visually impressive in its exploration of evil and the morality of capital punishment. And to see how else the play may differ from Lawrence After Arabia, Christie in Love is playing later this month at King’s Head Theatre, London.