Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional character to outlive the man who created him.
That is the simple, driving theme at the heart of David Stuart Davies’ superior, compact play ‘Sherlock Holmes… The Death and Life.’ While other classic characters, from Austen’s to Bronte’s, endure in a fixed point in their single works, Holmes continues to grow and appear in fiction beyond the scope and original imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, under the authorship and interpretation of others.
An entertaining, stimulating 75 minutes in two halves, ‘Sherlock Holmes… The Death and Life’ is excellently played by Roger Llewellyn. As the lone actor on stage, he carries all the parts throughout, from Doctor Conan Doyle’s musings on his writing in ‘reality’, to the comedic arrogance of Holmes, the sudden chill of a top hatted Moriarty, the worrying of Mrs Hudson and the slight idiocy of Inspector Lestrade. Also striking is the ‘silence’ of Watson, who only appears to get a couple of lines, a stylistic choice that is at first curious, but then more impactful when you consider it is largely Watson who narrates us through the stories themselves, yet here is mute. At times, Llewellyn demonstrated the gift of the ad lib, most notably while performing as Conan Doyle, consumed with the inception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, speaking of the spectral and the paranormal. As if on cue, a coat stand on the opposite side of the stage suddenly collapsed of its own accord, dumping its array of deerstalkers and cloaks onto the ground. Llewellyn didn’t miss a beat, instead turning the moment into a comedic point in the play. Performed in an intimate staging, the set is minimalist yet iconically Holmes, dotted with pipes, skulls, and the trademark violin. Also superb was the lighting, allowing a seamless transition between characters for Llewellyn – Moriarty, overlit from above being the most striking. However, most impressive was the big theme at the heart of the piece, which deserves a more thorough dissection.
When Holmes ‘died’ in The Final Problem, subscriptions to The Strand magazine dropped tremendously, and some people walked the streets wearing black armbands, such was the public’s love for him. He was the first character to transcend the idea of a death in fiction, that the very idea of him was bigger than any mortal conception of existence.
The play tackles this idea head on by giving Holmes [and Moriarty] a voice unknown to their creator, a postmodern sentience that fictional characters are never afforded – but of course Holmes is not just any fictional character. Conan Doyle did not realise this, both in this fiction and in reality, bemoaning the fact that he would be remembered purely as ‘The Sherlock Holmes Man’, when he strived to escape the shadow of the great detective and expand into other literary genres by bumping Sherlock off. And so, aware that he has been created by Conan Doyle with the sole purpose of being the device that will kill Holmes, Moriarty shares the truth of their existence with Sherlock, with the express aim of ensuring their eventual resurrection.
It’s a simple, yet brain bending idea that is more effective the more you consider it. If you create a character that the public responds to, it will outlive you and become bigger than you. A clever, slightly disturbing conceit, but also undeniably true. In 1939, nine years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died, another enduring character [and detective] appeared in the United States – Batman. And just like Holmes, long after creator Bob Kane passed, The Dark Knight continues to be written, reimagined and reinterpreted by others. Likewise Ian Fleming’s James Bond, both onscreen and in the officially estate sanctioned novels that twist and shape 007 to the ever changing world. If we were to guess and look to the future, we could see the Star Wars universe continuing long after the death of George Lucas, and, dare we say it, future adventures for Harry Potter – be they from JK Rowling or others to come. It worth noting that all these characters, iconography and their attendant universes share elements of the fantastic, yet are relatable – a net for the public imagination – and arguably thus share a commonality with Holmes, despite Conan Doyle’s stories being a rooted in a period of true history.
In summation, although only some dialogue is canon, and the history is fictionalised, ‘Sherlock Holmes… The Death and Life’ is a hearty recommendation from us, mainly due to the big theme that it presents to an audience, as well as being further proof of the endless tales that can be spun out from these incredible characters. The notion of Holmes being so brilliant he is able to become self-aware of his fictional nature is tremendous, knowing he is too big to ever ‘die’, and thus ensure his constant resurrection and reinvention, even after the man who birthed him is long gone. Ultimately, the play is about a confrontation between mortality and imagination, when despite any personal reluctance, ideas become bigger than you, define you, and ultimately become your epitaph and legacy.
The play has been on national tour in the United Kingdom since 2008. We saw it performed at our new, beautiful local theatre in Canterbury, Kent, UK, [below] in a single night’s engagement, but you can find forthcoming performance information and dates here: http://www.makinprojects.co.uk/page47.html
Or alternatively, Big Finish have recorded an adaptation of the play, performed by Roger Llewellyn, and released it on CD. You can that find here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sherlock-Holmes-David-Stuart-Davies/dp/1844354555
We were also pleased to discover Roger Llewellyn will be taking part opposite us in MX Publishing’s Great Sherlock Holmes Debate, on the Traditionalist’s team, on November 10th 2011. You can find more information here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Great-Sherlock-Holmes-Debate/161705877248289
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