It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 47: Agatha Christie’s Verdict (1958)
Agatha Christie is, allegedly, the most revived female playwright in history, and I can kind of see why. Her work is untaxing, often set in the well-to-do cosy surroundings of bygone eras, and audiences enter safe in the knowledge that, no matter how grisly the murder, all will be put right by the final curtain. Yet Verdict is somewhat of an odd fish in these regards. Aside from the cover blurb covering the entire plot (which I foolishly read beforehand), the play involves little mystery or intrigue. Less a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit (in the classic Columbo style), we know the culprit and their motive from the off. So this left me wondering exactly how to categorise Verdict…
The story involves an eminent Professor, Karl Hendryk, who has emigrated to Britain following a run-in with the government in his homeland (it is never specified where that is). He takes care of his invalid wife, Anya, with the help of her cousin Lisa, with whom Karl has been in love with for years, although they have never acted upon their feelings. Yet Karl is also the object of student, Helen’s, affections, who, jealous and in the belief that she is freeing Karl from an unhappy marriage, kills Anya and covers up the murder as a suicidal overdose of pain medication. What follows is a muddle of false accusations, contradictory behaviour and disappointing resolutions.
There is a nice bit of suspense in Act 2 as we await the verdict of a trial, yet this is quickly dissipated with an anticlimactic revelation that seems very throwaway. The resolution is so neat (albeit with some unnecessary toing and froing in the build-up) that it really stretches the suspension of disbelief, a problem I also had with the stage adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None which bordered on laughable in its ludicrous denouement. Even more of a problem is the lack of characterisation. The play is filled with stock characters of a 2D nature – all the familiar tropes are there; the dodgy working-class cleaner; the cold but beautiful woman; the clumsy but well-meaning young man – and because of this there is no real attachment to them, I didn’t care about them. What’s more, often it seems that Christie uses her characters, not as living, breathing people, but as mouthpieces for exposition or some sort of vague social commentary (it is hinted that Karl won’t inform the police of Helen’s crime in the fear that she will hang for it). The dialogue is flimsy at best, and littered with stilted pleasantries; the rounds of ‘how do you do’s?’ on every character’s entrance becomes tiresome fast.
I could read into Verdict some essence of thematic complexity – allusions to assisted suicide and debates over a person’s right to die with dignity, and the aforementioned questioning of capital punishment – yet I feel this would be stretching the play too much and imprinting upon it my own need to analyse everything (a personal fault, I admit). The truth is, Verdict is too flimsy a play to adequately support such intellectual debates. Therefore, taken at face value, it is semi-entertaining, in an ironic I-Can’t-Believe-How-Ridiculous-This-Is way, but if you’re looking for a satisfying Christie mystery thriller, I’d advise sticking to the novels or tv adaptations of Poirot and Marple.