In what might be an Australian premier, Lieder Theatre Company’s production of Ken Ludwig’s fast paced comedy Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, is bound to get audiences venturing out into the cold mid-winter weather of Goulburn NSW.
Lieder, possibly Australia’s longest running theatre company established in 1891, is known for its productions that encompass new and experimental theatre, Shakespeare and Indigenous works, and even with this extensive experience, Baskerville is proving a challenge according to Director Chrisjohn Hancock – one that the rather talented cast is rising to.
The challenge comes from Ludwig’s calculated use of comic devices in casting and staging, which are central to the genius of the play. The play is deliberately written for 5 actors (Lieder is using 6) who play all 40 parts, and while cast playing multiple roles is not uncommon in community productions around the country, it is usually due to casting challenges, rather than those provided intentionally by the playwright.
With so many characters, and so few cast, lightning fast costume changes, including wigs and facial hair, result in actors sometimes being caught in the “act”. This combined with the occasional exasperated aside through the “fourth wall”, ensures that audiences are in on the joke and almost become part of the play itself.
Indeed Ludwig himself in the preface to the script says that a central tenet of the play is that the audience is aware that the actors are acting, and that it is essential the actor develops a relationship with the audience. The actors need to tell the story and at the same time develop a rapport with the audience, something the experienced cast of Lieder regulars are finding exhausting, but at the same time enjoyable according to Hancock.
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Constant movement of the scenery is another essential device employed to engage the audience. Multiple scenes changes are required including 16 locations in Act 1 and a similar number in Act 2, producing a film like experience where things are travelling all the time. While sets may be simple in design, they are complex in their execution.
At times the actors do less walking than the set, where doors and windows move from stage left to stage right, where the only walking an actor needs to do is through the door. “Doors and other pieces of set often travel further than the actors”, says Hancock. And it’s not just doors and windows that move, with furniture of all sorts, walls and other set pieces continually moving to give the sense that this play never stops. This requires a unique set of skills of the back stage crew, who Hancock notes are as essential to the production as the on-stage cast.
Securing the rights to the play proved a little difficult, and it may indicate that this is indeed the first time this play has been seen in Australia. Whether it is an Australian premier or not does not matter, the comic genius of the writing, the dedication, skills and enthusiasm of the actors (and crew) and the non-stop action on stage is no doubt reason enough to venture out of doors this winter in Goulburn.