‘Murderer’ was arresting.
To counterbalance its previous production (the excellent and experimental ‘The Penelopiad’) Javeenbah Theatre Company is currently offering the far more traditional serving of Anthony Shaffer’s ‘Murderer’. In doing so, it reminds audiences that this unassuming little theatre is not beholden to any one genre. This mystery/thriller feels right at home within these walls.
Schaffer wrote ‘Murderer’ in 1975 in an attempt to recreate the success of his Tony Award-winning ‘Sleuth’. Where ‘Sleuth’ was an intricate, complicated battle of wits between its two protagonists that kept audiences in the dark as to who they could trust and what was the truth, ‘Murderer’ builds its tension through the mystery of how exactly its obviously sinister protagonist, Norman Bartholomew, will get away with his plans. Its similarities to ‘Sleuth’ are only skin deep.
Norman is an intriguing character. He is fascinated by the “art” of murder and has a twisted, encyclopaedic knowledge of history’s most unusual poisonings, stabbings and strangulations. These he re-enacts with dummies and animal blood for his own morbid satisfaction, much to the chagrin of the other characters who share in his story. The audience is invited to sympathise with him and the play succeeds here perhaps unexpectedly.
This is a script that hinges everything on the performance of its leading man. Thankfully, Nathan Schulz’s performance as Norman is exceptional. There is a gleeful menace in his characterisation that is never overplayed, despite the ominous sense of foreboding he carries with him throughout the narrative. It feels like Schulz was born into this role. At the very least, Schaffer clearly had someone like him in mind when he penned it.
Schulz is supported by a small pool of actors who comfortably inhabit the disparate, unnerving roles they portray. The standout is Naomi Thompson as Elizabeth, who bounces off Schulz with an impressive sharpness and navigates the twists and turns Schaffer has thrown at her with the perfect balance of grace and wickedness. She expertly treads the knife-edge of realism and melodrama that seems to form the basis of all of theatre’s best mystery-thrillers.
Director Barry Gibson has steered the production with the aptitude of experience. His blocking is fluid and natural and never impeded by the cramped space – the patterns of the actors moving through the world he has created is almost hypnotic. Schaffer’s text is not without its plot-holes, but Gibson draws us away from these to concentrate on what really matters.
Unfortunately, ‘Murderer’ doesn’t succeed much in surprising us (if that was even Schaffer’s intention with this script). Moments that other plays of this nature might view as ‘twists’ are projected long before they occur and at times it is a little frustrating that the characters take far longer than the audience to piece things together. This isn’t aided by the fact that the marketing materials for this production spoil what could have otherwise been effective reveals.
Happily, though, this production doesn’t rely on twists and reveals to tell a compelling story. Rather, it aims to be a psychologically driven character study. On this front, it succeeds enormously thanks in no small part to the performances of its leads and the talents of its director.
‘Murderer’ performs until Saturday, 3 August 2019 at Javeenbah Theatre Company. Tickets are available at TryBooking – Murderer.