New Sherlock Holmes adaptation comes to The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth

The Sign of Four by Blackeyed Theatre comes to New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in November
The Sign of Four by Blackeyed Theatre comes to New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in November

For those missing their fix of Sherlock Holmes since the last (and possibly final) outing for Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the great sleuth, help is on the way.

Following its successful tour of Jekyll & Hyde, Blackeyed Theatre returns with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four.

Nick Lane directs and wrote this new adaptation, which is his first attempt at putting on one of the Sherlock stories.

‘I’m a huge fan of crime fiction, but it is quite tough to stage because it’s all reported action, so you’ve got to find a way to keep the pace up and if we’ve done it right, and I hope we have, then it’ll be exciting and the audience will be with Holmes, or maybe a step behind him because he is a genius. If not it become quite an arid storytelling exercise – just lots and lots of questions.

‘Some of it is set during the Indian rebellion of 1857 –  the book does go back 35 years in time from when it was written to talk about what transpired and why the crime at the centre of the novel happened, so there’s quite a bit of exposition. You have to try and find ways to make it fun for the audience to watch and visually interesting.’

But obviously with such a well-known, and frequently adapted character, the biggest challenge for Nick has been putting the company’s own stamp on the material.

‘There are other novels which are better known and more regularly adapted, The Hound of the Baskervilles springs immediately to mind. Part of the fun with this is that it isn’t as often approached so there’s the opportunity to not necessarily break new ground as such, but to stir up audiences a bit.

‘There are so many perceptions of Holmes and people have their own ideas about what kind of a man he is and theories in recent years, was he writing about a person who had Aspergers or autism or savantism or whatever? And obviously you can’t please all of the people all the time, but you try and latch on to something and go: “This is my perception of Holmes,” and I hope I get that right for people, and the company don’t get loads of angry letters saying: “No, that’s nonsense!”

And he’s also opted to keep it as a period piece.

‘When you’ve had something which has captured the public’s imagination like [the BBC’s] Sherlock, you’d be a bold man to take that on. I think Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are fine actors and Mark Gatiss is a great writer, maybe I’m more of a traditionalist in that way.

‘There is a little change towards the end - the crime is still the crime and Holmes solves it in the way you expect, but Conan Doyle was writing for his audience, he was writing for the late-Victorian era, empire-dominated, class-entrenched, affluent white males ruling the world, basically. We have a much more enlightened view of India now, and a more realistic view of what the empire did. I haven’t made it a tub-thumping polemic, I haven’t suddenly made it: “We are all evil”, that’s not the case at all, but I did want to give the Indian characters a bit more to do - to make them more three-dimensional. The four are three Indian Sikhs, and one English guy, and the Sikhs are portrayed as maybe a little bit cowardly and a bit sneaky. I felt like I wanted to, without being totally revisionist, give them a bit more of a rounded character. It puts flesh on the bones of the Indian characters - to give them agency and control over their own actions, less like thieves, servants or noble savages, which I didn’t like at all.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​’


New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth 

November 15-17