UAA counts down to the arrival of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’

Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” is coming to the UAA Fine Arts Building. Originally a novel written by Christie in 1939, Christie said that it was one of the most difficult of her books to write. She adapted the work into a play in 1943 under the original title, “Ten Little Niggers.” This work, due to the racial slur in the title, was first retitled to “Ten Little Indians.” Once again, due to racial language, it was retitled once more to its final name, “And Then There Were None.”

The locked-room style mystery is a popular Christie trope and this play holds no exception. Many involved in the production are familiar with the play or the novel, including Brian E.G. Cook, assistant professor of theater at UAA and the director of Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”

“It’s a story I’ve always liked. I’ve always loved detective and murder mystery stories and as a kid, I remember reading Agatha Christie’s actual novel. As a director and as a scholar, one of the things I’m interested in is crime stories on stage… Because nowadays, we don’t really write those kinds of plays anymore,” Cook said. “I was in this play when I was in high school. I played Dr. Armstrong. It was a fun experience and I had a great time doing that show. But, I hadn’t ever directed it before. I did a murder mystery before in Fairbanks and ever since, I wanted to do another.”

Photo credit: Lee Piltz

The main stage in the Fine Arts building is a thrust stage, which means part of the stage ‘thrusts’ out into the audience, giving it three sides. However, for this style of play, a proscenium stage, or a box set stage, is needed.

A proscenium stage is the most traditional form of stage used in theater. The design team had to carefully alter the Fine Arts building’s thrust stage so it looked like a box set stage. It is Cook’s hope that the changes will gently usher the audience into that unfamiliar world, rather than confuse theater goers.

“It transports you into a world that, we as Alaskans, never really access. [The setting] is England, in a West Country island in the 1930s, so it is definitely stepping into another world with the dialects, the style of the piece, and you get that thriller component too,” Cook said. “For people coming to see the show, who have been to our stage before, they will see something very different than they have ever seen before. Because we basically eliminated one of the sides of our thrust.”

Another challenge the team had was mastering dialects. The play itself uses a variety of English accents. Contrary to what most Americans would imitate as being a 1930s era British accent, speaking in the true dialects can actually be quite difficult.

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Ty Hewitt, an assistant professor of acting in the theater and dance department at UAA, is the dialect and voice coach, as well as the fight choreographer for the play.

“This play poses a particular challenge. We are using several different accents. The biggest challenge in that is hearing something that is going to be different for the audience from what they’re used to hearing. Similar to how it takes the audience a little while to get used to hearing Classical Text, for example. With the various different accents it will take a little while for the audience to get used to that,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt hopes that much in the same way an audience gets used to hearing Shakespeare, they can get used to hearing the different British dialects used in “And Then There Were None.”

“We have a pretty good split of accents. It’s mostly upper-class characters, so we are dealing more with the standard British accent, which is called RP… That’s the one most of the characters are using. There are a couple of characters that speak in the lower-class Cockney dialect. And there’s one character, who’s only on stage briefly, who speaks in a West Country dialect… And then, there’s a really complicated one, there’s a character who has a natural Cockney accent, who is putting on an effective South African dialect until she is found out. And that’s confusing as hell.”

This play not only gives students the opportunity to showcase their acting skills and give them some dialect training, it also gives Lisa-Marie Castro, theater major and senior at UAA, a thesis topic. Castro plays Vera Claythorne in the play and is writing her thesis on Christie’s progressive views on women murderers.

Lisa-Marie Castro plays Vera in the play. Taren Haynes plays her counterpart, Captain Lombard.

“What I really really love about her work, is the fact that she’s willing to go down the dark route of the human psyche. She also allows women to also be murderers or potential murders or do really dark things. For the time, that was really cool,” Castro said. “My thesis is mainly about how society views women killers. It’s completely different from male killers, especially serial killers. Once again, Christie was willing to even just talk about females killing children or another person, which I find fascinating. I mainly focus on how society views women killers, how they talk about women killers, and how men, especially back then, talked about female killers.”

For those who have read the play or the book, the ending is not expected to be exactly the same. Cook explains that the team changed the ending just a bit to make things interesting,

“We did tweak the ending a little bit… We are generally following the end, with one minor exception,” Cook said.

For those wishing to view the play, you can purchase tickets at the Student Union box office, the box office in the Fine Arts Building or online. The show dates for the play are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Oct. 28 and 29 and Nov. 4 and 5 with matinee dates at 5 p.m. on Oct. 30 and Nov. 6. In addition to the show, on Oct. 30, there is a talk-balk with the cast and crew and members of UAA’s English faculty about women and Agatha Christie.