October 10th, 2017


Review: Murder on the Nile

This weekend I went to see a quite enjoyable college production of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Nile". I heard a few complaints afterwards from audience members about the over-enthusiastic accents (English, Scottish, Arabic, and unidentified Slavic), but I thought it all contributed to a convincing sense of somewhere else, as did the production's somewhat elaborate single set. It felt very much like an actual location, and the set and lighting crew did an excellent job of creating scenes outside the back wall of windows to create the sense of a boat traveling down the Nile.

But the whole thing got me thinking a bit about stage productions, and what sort I tend to find most effective--and this one was actually more of a counter-example. Generally, the performances that have stuck in my memory over the years are those verging on bare stage, with almost everything sketched out by the actors and then fleshed out mentally by the audience as they're carried along by the force of what's happening onstage. A few boxes, a simple chair and table, steps or scaffolding that can be moved around as necessary: the magic of live theater is that these few things can become an entire world simply through the skill of those interacting with them.

Which isn't to say I dislike elaborate sets and costumes--if done correctly, they're also effective. But the difficulty is in doing them correctly, especially for a modern audience member who is used to the meticulous detailing that's now expected in films and television. Really, a stage production can't be expected to compete, and usually they can't. The sets wind up feeling cramped, the costumes awkward, and the acting artificial in comparison.

That's why bare stage often works better, I think. Live threater's strength is in the liveness of it, in the shared creation of a story, with the audience reacting to the actors and the actors feeding off that reaction; in the space to improvise according to who's sitting in the front row, or to slowly tweak a scene over a week of performances. The artificiality of it also allows things that simply don't work within tendency towards realism in the medium of film. An actor can speak a soliloquey to his audience because the audience is right there in the room with him; he's talking to actual people, and the people are responding directly, and it feels natural despite the obvious contrivance of it all.

I have a good friend who can't stand most live theater because of the contrivance; she can't help but be distracted and annoyed by the larger style of acting required by the physical separation of actors and audience. It's a shame, because stage can do things film can't, just as film has its own set of advantages. But then, I struggle when watching film sometimes, due to ham-fisted musical scores or overuse of close-ups, so perhaps we're simply different sides of the same coin.

All that to say: live theater is nifty, and I'm glad it's still around and doesn't look to be going away anytime soon. Also, go see "Murder on the Nile" if there's a production near you. It's an excellent meditation on love, envy, and the nature of evil--and a fun mystery to boot.