Reviewed by Deborah E. Burns, October 2007

(Click HERE to see production photos.)

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Phileas Fogg and his servant Passepartout; various kings and their fools: literature abounds with odd couples. Their oppositeness clarifies their differences, often in broad comic strokes, defining the visionary, head-in-the-clouds aristocrat against the loyal, practical, feet-on-the-ground servant.

In contrast, the famous friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson is one of psychological complexity more than comic opposition. “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes” (in its U.S. premiere Sept. 28 through Oct. 28 at Shakespeare & Company) traces their relationship over more than a decade, in a script drawn largely from the 54 short and 6 longer stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that make up the Holmes canon.

Despite the intriguing title, this is not a dramatization of a particular case; it is a study of character with a bit of mystery mixed in. As playwright Jeremy Paul points out, every filmed version of a Holmes tale ignores the backstory to focus just on the labyrinthine “case.” When Paul began examining the two men’s friendship (one he characterized as having “no modern sexual overtones at all”), it was like “stumbling across a trunkful of treasures in an attic.”

The result (first performed in the West End in 1988) was a sparkling script that is receiving a vigorous treatment in Lenox. S&Co. veterans Michael Hammond and Dave Demke are Holmes and Watson, respectively, and it is a treat to watch two such marvelous and generous actors at work. They listen and respond genuinely to one another, shaping a relationship that is alive and convincing against the complex backdrop of Victorian England.

The play begins in the way Sherlock Holmes stories customarily begin: someone arrives at 221B Baker Street, the detective scrutinizes him or her, and he then shows off his extraordinary powers of deduction. Here the subject is a young Watson, answering Holmes’s advertisement offering a room. He is shell-shocked and deeply disillusioned following medical service and a serious wound during the Second Afghan War (all of which Holmes discerns), and he has lost his emotional center. The detective, meanwhile, is arrogant and haughty, but he quickly perceives in the mild, kind Watson that rare thing: a complementary personality. Like yin and yang, they balance and complete each other and ultimately require each other in order to thrive.

Sensitively portrayed by Demke, Watson is good-natured, earnest, intelligent, but his virtues seem ordinary next to Holmes’s genius. Hammond’s Holmes adroitly spans the extremes of a dual nature: brilliance vs. terrible darkness; languid melancholy vs. bouts of energetic astuteness. Watson is the steady horizontal to Holmes’s vertical; or as Holmes puts it, “the one fixed point in a changing universe.”

Watson offers something more, however: he is Holmes’s admiring audience and, ultimately, his chronicler. Although the detective often says (unkindly) to Watson “You see but you do not observe,” Watson does in fact observe Holmes keenly – his person, abilities, actions – and he records these observations to mutual benefit. After his sagas of Holmes’s remarkable successes appear in print, new clients swarm to the modest rooms.

Fiercely ambitious, Holmes requires this mirror to feel complete. “I am lost without my Boswell!” he exclaims. Offered lightly in the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” this comment becomes a cri de coeur in the play. Watson sees Holmes clearly because he loves and admires him. Holmes sees himself less well. He combats black despair and bleak loneliness with work and with the “clarity and stimulation” of cocaine. His journey over the course of the play involves understanding his own conflicted nature and his need for friendship.

Sublime acting in two separate but similar scenes shows the contrasting character of each man. In the earlier scene, Watson announces that he is engaged to be married, which means the end of their cohabitation and day-to-day relationship. Holmes’s face, his bearing, and his voice all try to hide his shock and grief at this unexpected emotional blow. It’s as if he has been pushed off a cliff. Although he takes the high road and wishes Watson good luck, Hammond gives this scene heart-rending depth. Later the tables are turned: it’s Holmes who seems to have abandoned Watson. The doctor astonishes Holmes by bluntly stating his hurt and resentment, showing a tiny bit of self-righteousness as if he’s making the most of his brief moment of power.

Brisk and bracing as a strong cup of English Breakfast tea, this production, like Doyle’s stories, is steeped in time and place, and director Robert Walsh and the inspired team of designers (set, Paulo Seixas; lighting, Matthew Miller; sound, Bill Barclay; costumes, Govane Lohbauer) invite us into the world of these two men. As conjured onstage at Founder’s Theatre, the flat on Baker Street has a ruddy, lamplit quality with fireplace, armchairs, stacks of books, lamps, old clocks, worn wallpaper, a violin. Out the window in the twilight loom the towers of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

Details and subtle moments reveal more, such as the way each character behaves when alone, before the other one arrives, and the different types of silence that arise between them. The actors peer into the audience to see passersby and poverty on Baker Street. The rich, melancholy violin chords of Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Bartok permeate the production and evoke both the period and the strong moods of Sherlock Holmes.

All in all, this production is a splendid collaboration among artists complementing and completing one another: detective and doctor; playwright and author; director and designers; and, most of all, actor and actor, who trade speeches, pace the space, and tell this story in a true meeting of minds.

“The Secret of Sherlock Holmes” is about one hour and 45 minutes, including intermission; the theatre was quite cool during the matinee we attended. Despite the intriguing title you may not want to bring children, especially if they haven’t read the stories, because it is a play built primarily of talk; in addition, there is a scene where Holmes injects cocaine. People who are familiar with the stories will enjoy the play the most, catching every reference to various cases and characters.

The Shakespeare and Company production of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes runs through October 28 in the Founders' Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. Call 413-637-3353 for reservations.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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