When you walk towards The Genesian Theatre lit up by a wide, waxing moon on a winter’s night in Sydney, a good amount of theatrical atmosphere has been built before you even take your seat for the show. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a perfect play for this setting and the tension, mystery and hilarity of the play are served with prowess from its commencement to curtain close. Haunting sound effects and lighting, prescient directorial decisions and, most notably, exquisite acting make this show a must see.
Presenting the world of the iconic Sherlock Holmes and this whodunnit mystery in a fresh and engaging light for today’s theatregoers is no mean feat, but director Richard Cotter achieves this with flair and conviction. Traditional costuming and the minimal set choices of the production team are wise and allow the actors to harness the language of Arthur Conan-Doyle and create a rich imaginary world on stage through their versatility as performers. The team’s proficient use of stage fog, blue lighting and haunting howls throughout the play maintain an ambience of mystery for the audience. Cotter’s clever metatheatrical framing of the narrative (a production being rehearsed in real time) immediately grasps the audience, bringing us into the world of the play. Joyous laughter and panto-style responses from the audience are heard when the fourth wall is broken, and our attention is drawn to our own vital role in the performance.
The three actors take on this metatheatrical framing masterfully, starting by “playing themselves,” then undertaking a cacophony of characters to create a complete and exciting theatrical world. NIDA graduate Alyona Popova surpasses expectations in her brilliant execution of a multitude of characters including Sherlock Holmes, Stapleton “the naturalist” and his wife Cecille, Barrymore the butler and several others. Her amazing conviction with accents from Toffee Brit to German matron, to Yorkshire hermit is commendable, and I have rarely witnessed such skill. Popova embodies all her roles with such physicality, idiosyncrasy and energy, you almost forget she is but one actor.
Popova’s panache for comic timing complements the performance of growing actor Kate Easlea in her role as Watson, which is far from elementary. The two develop a repartee that is frankly hilarious. Mutterings of, “oh a female Holmes and Watson, how interesting,” could be heard amongst the audience before the show began, but Popova and Easlea were acutely aware of this as a potential apprehension that might arise from our more conservative theatre-going companions. Not only did they perform their roles as Holmes and Watson with belief, but they also played upon the homoerotic undertone of this legendary pair in hilariously self-aware moments, lingering on Conan-Doyle's favour for the word “queer,” and debunking toxic masculinity with their appropriation of the iconic Han Solo line, when in a passionate moment Watson brazenly professes, “I love you Sherlock,” and Holmes replies “I know.” In this moment Popova and Easlea eradicate any question of gender-suitability to their roles. This comical faux pas is carried through the play by Easlea and her engaging voice and facial expressions which serve to create a rounded characterisation of the sidekick we know and love.
Oliver Harcout-Ham is the third cast member who pulls the play together through his portrayal of Baskerville and a bevy of other characters. His straight-faced focus during several slapstick moments makes them all the more hilarious; the audience witnesses several “trouserless” gags and are in stitches at the sauna-scene which sees Harcourt-Ham, in nothing but a bath towel, maintain a comically cringeworthy farce without wavering. His comedic moments as “the cabby,” a purveyor of livestock (“lamb in a bag”) and as himself, the actor, keep the audience giggling and the energy high.
The mystery is finally solved after a funny and frenetic replay of Act One, phantasmagorical dance sequences, more metatheatrical framing (using a literal picture frame) and much onstage dressing and undressing. A chorus of impressed audience members left the theatre with high praise for this production and an agreement that there is little that is amateur about The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is not just a performance; it is an experience of the life of the theatre and not one to miss. I give this performance 5 lambs in a bag out of 5.