From all over the world, tourists come to King Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem on holiday. The Boyntons from America are in the lobby, but they don’t seem to be having much fun. It is sinister how they don’t stay together as much as stick together, rarely mingling and never laughing. Lennox Boynton is reading a book upside down. Mrs Boynton, once a prison warder, is a mother from hell and her family is straining at the leash. Minutes into Shri Ram Centre’s new play, Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, it is clear who the marked one is.
Christie, called the Queen of Crime, is rarely explored on the Delhi stage. After working on William Shakespeare and Moliere, among others, Shri Ram Centre roped in city director Sohaila Kapur to direct Appointment with Death, a whodunit wrapped in a family drama. Appointment with Death featured Hercule Poirot in the novel, but Christie rewrote it as a play in 1945, removed the famous Belgian detective and changed the murderer. Complex relationships drive the narrative as in all of Christie’s works. The eldest Boynton son, Lennox, is resigned, the youngest, Raymond, is rebellious, the daughter Ginerva is losing sanity and the daughter-in-law Nadine is losing hope. Yet, they submit silently to Mrs Boynton’s whims until the day it becomes desperately clear to all that mother must die.
Kapur’s 2015 play was Bebe Ka Chamba, based on Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernada Alba, about another destructive mother. The script is the hero in Appointment with Death. The actors appear more as storytellers, who play out lines, unburdened with building layers of back stories or characterisations. “Christie is old world and non-experimental. Her script dictates the style of coming and delivering lines with set clues, as in the 1930s,” says Kapur. Saksham Shukla does a mean caricature of Mrs Boynton, Smita Singh is credibly high-strung while Megha Mathur combines dignity and despair as the daughter-in-law Nadine. Aliflaila Ahmad as the pompous British politician and activist Amabel Pryce ensures smiles if not laughs.
The costumes are period, characters speak in Hindi and English and video projections recreate the magnificent ruins of Petra against which Mrs Boyton sits and keeps an eye on her family. The production creates the suspense early and maintains it for more than two hours till the final revelation. The identity of the murderer is, unsurprisingly, a surprise, but it also closes the play with the idea of great power. The director says, “It is a story of a house but it is also the story of the world confronted with autocracy. The children were not allowed to think for themselves and they were told, “Tumhare bhale ke liye hai’ (It is for your good). Nadine says, ‘Pyar ke naam par yeh berahmi hai’ (This is ruthlessness in the name of love).” As the lights come on in the hall, Lennox, the obedient son, wonders: “Why didn’t we speak up before?”