The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: Interview with Mark Shanahan

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We speak to Mark Shanahan, adaptor and director of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for the Alley Theatre in Texas about the new production, his impressions of Hercule Poirot, and the process of bringing this renowned story to life for the stage.

What can audiences expect from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd at Alley Theatre, Texas?

Alley Theatre is one of our premiere regional theatres in the United States and they have often done the works of Agatha Christie with great success. The audience always turns out in droves for a Christie offering, so I'm incredibly excited for Alley patrons to see this production.

I’m hoping fans of the book will be delighted to see this classic tale come to life and enjoy matching wits with Poirot. Although this story has one of her very best endings, I think audiences will enjoy meeting the parade of wonderful characters Mrs. Christie created in the book and find the play to have a fresh, energetic, theatrical approach which invites audience members into a world of secrets and suspicion!

Can you talk a bit about the team of creatives who have helped bring this show to life?

We’ve assembled some of the very best designers with more Broadway and regional credits than I can count. Klara Zieglarova (Broadway’s Jersey Boys, among others) has designed a remarkable set, offering the grand mansion of Fernly Hall which also transforms easily into several other locations in the play. Klara is a wonderful and joyful collaborator and her set shines beneath the exquisite lighting design of Broadway staple Rui Rita. Award-winning costume designer Helen Huang’s rich, period clothes are delightful and beautifully detailed. And my friend John Gromada, the best sound designer in New York, has crafted a wonderful original score that evokes the feel of an Agatha Christie story down to the very last note.

How did you prepare to adapt such a famous, and beloved Christie novel?

My first experience with the novel as a young reader was one of the great reading experiences of my life. Like so many who admire the book, when I finished it I immediately went back to the first page to study how Christie had taken me on this remarkable journey. I hold the book in such high esteem that I wouldn’t want to get it wrong when adapting it! I thought about how to approach this task for quite some time before sitting down at the keyboard and I kept my dog-eared copy of the book close by at all times, underlining passages and making notes in the margins.

Of course, a play is a very different beast than a novel, something Christie knew all too well. She was certainly an outstanding playwright as well as a novelist. In order to honour her novel but also understand her success as a writer for the stage, I re-read all of her plays to immerse myself in how she handled the proportion of mystery, comedy, suspense, and exposition. I was especially interested in reading Black Coffee, the only play in which she dramatized Poirot. It is such a wonderful piece and I love Poirot’s first entrance- there’s something almost magical about it.

As I set out to adapt The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, I knew that the play would require a creative approach which would help maintain the essence of all that is in the novel. There are many characters in the book who briefly appear and do not impact the plot. Although you cannot keep everything from the novel, it was difficult to sacrifice some of the details I loved. With that in mind, I absorbed some of the minor characters' wonderful and witty lines and traits into several of the main characters who are indispensable.

What were your experiences of Agatha Christie stories before you began on your adaptation?

Like so many others, I fell in love with her novels as a teenager. One summer, I happened upon a yard sale with a cardboard box filled with her paperbacks and I bought them all. Those books helped make me a voracious reader. I wasn’t always interested in what my school teachers assigned for us to read- but those Christie novels hooked me right away. I have my favourites, of course, and ones I still return to. But The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was always top of my list.

That said, it was as a theatre artist that I really began to understand Christie’s genius. I’ve been fortunate enough to act in and direct several of her works over the years, including Witness For The Prosecution and The Hollow at Alley Theatre. Standing onstage inside one of her plays, you can really feel how an audience hangs on every word, every action. It is quite an extraordinary thing to realize how excellently structured Christie's plays are and how well they work on an audience. As an actor, she provides a plot that will carry you through the evening, but also offer a great sense of complexity. Actors love performing her plays because at all times, a Christie character is holding a secret, something they do not easily reveal.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to direct and even write some mysteries for the stage, and I know all too well that a puzzling mystery is fun for an audience, but it is the characters they must care about, above all.

The story is predominantly told by Dr Sheppard, but Act 2 opens with an address from Hercule Poirot. How important is it to hear from the retired Belgian detective?

Dr. Sheppard is a wonderful guide throughout the tale, and I loved crafting his theatrical narration from Mrs. Christie’s book. Though he provides our way into the story, it is Poirot whom we are most fascinated by as we watch him work it all out. I wanted the second act to lean into Poirot’s mysteriousness a bit. As he says, he “knows everything!”

There is a brief passage in the book where Poirot ruminates on the act of murder and how there exists in all of us a darker side which we often conceal. I was taken with this writing and intrigued that Christie would pause in the midst of this wonderful ride to briefly philosophize about human nature. I thought her words might be a perfect opening to Act Two, as Poirot addresses the audience and takes a moment to set the stage for what is to come. With some minor alterations, I am pleased that Christie’s words on the subject of our “inner demons" made it into the play to launch Act Two. If Act One belongs to Dr. Sheppard’s narration, Act Two is firmly in Poirot’s control.

How did you go about recreating the time period, and the British setting of the play? Is there anything you wanted to emphasize in particular to the audience about this?

I love how Christie used the technology of 1926 and integrated it into her book. There are phone calls and dictation machines and telegrams used and the story feels very modern, in a way. With that in mind, I crafted a series of round-robin phone calls and letter readings which are really fun to stage - in which exposition and plot details can be delivered at a rapid pace.

I always find it interesting that Christie wrote at such perilous times, over the decades of the twentieth century. This story, taking place between the wars, is set in a peaceful little English town which Christie goes out of the way to describe as unremarkable - its “chief hobby is gossip.” But there is something else, something darker lurking in King’s Abbot. Our designers fleshed out this world on stage. The set design offers a classic English country manor, the costumes differentiate the various social strata, and John Gromada’s sound design not only has a beautiful score, but also offers the everyday sounds of the little village. All of these departments helped create a play world which constantly hint at the secrets which lie behind the façade.

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David Sinaiko as Hercule Poirot in Alley Theatre's production of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Photography by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox.

The majority of the action takes place in Fernly Hall, Roger Ackroyd’s large residence. What do you like about a locked room mystery?

I’m a big fan of the locked room mystery. Christie is an expert at it, but I also love John Dickson Carr, Doyle, and all the other masters of the genre. It’s fun to stumble upon an impossible situation involving a crime and then have the solution become apparent. I will be honest in stating I am usually the last one to figure it out, but I always love finding out the answer. My family has tried to drag me to escape rooms for fun, but I routinely find I end up the bystander, enjoying watching everyone else figure out the puzzle! I like the problem more than the solution, at times.

There’s 12 characters in this show. How important is the size of the cast to the unfolding drama?

As a director, everywhere I go, theatres ask me if I have a four character play to pitch. Theatre is an expensive pursuit and as we struggle to entice audiences to return to their seats following the pandemic, it can be a difficult thing to write for a large cast. But audiences often love an Agatha Christie play precisely because the assembled cast is so rich and varied. The thing I tried to honour in the tradition of her plays is to introduce fun characters and make sure each one gets their turn in the sun - with a rich scene in which they delve into their secrets. To do that, each character must have a distinct voice and offer something unique to the proceedings. It’s also a lot of fun to pit them against each other! They are each by turn often quite sympathetic, viscously cruel, wonderfully funny, and usually more than a little mysterious!

What has been your favourite thing about adapting an Agatha Christie story for the stage?

There is a moment in the play when a major secret is revealed, and the audience lets out a tremendous gasp - all as one. It is a beautiful sound to hear. To have that many people gather together and experience the same moment in such a way is a thrill. It makes my hair stand on end every time I hear it. I understand that members of our stage crew gather in the wings for that moment each night to listen to the audience reaction!

But truly, to have adapted this book has been a labour of love. I hope Agatha Christie would be pleased with the play and feel it honoured the novel.

The experience of writing this adaptation allowed me to get inside the world of Agatha Christie’s genius and live there for a bit. I recall seeing The Mousetrap for the first time as a boy, and it gave me such a jolt as a young audience member. It is my hope that this play will be a gateway for some young theatre-goer to be excited about coming to the theatre - and perhaps pick up a book by Agatha Christie, too - and become hooked on her stories as I once did.

Caroline Sheppard is often referenced as a character who inspired Christie to create Miss Marple. Did this play into how you characterized her?

I do love a good Marple story, and I can certainly see why scholars have often made this connection. Caroline has many of Miss Marple’s characteristics. But she is also her own creation, I find. In many ways, Caroline feels like the heart of the book. From the start, she is always in search of the truth, even as she’s a somewhat dismissed by others. She’s also a means for some humour in the novel as well, and Christie uses that to great affect.

Can you talk a bit about the family dynamics on display in the show?

It’s interesting how Roger Ackroyd himself barely appears in the novel before he is dispatched. But he casts a large shadow and everyone in the story is affected by their relationship to him. The family members, friends, and staff who live at Fernly are all beholden to him, which allows for many intriguing motives to commit murder!

Roger’s widowed sister-in-law is dissolute and worried about her own finances, his foster son and niece grapple with an unwanted, impending arranged marriage which will keep the wealth in the family, and an old friend who considers himself like a brother to Ackroyd has come around looking for a handout. Additionally, there is a house butler with a secretive past, a personal secretary who knows more than she is willing to say, and an upstart maid who might not be what she appears. With all of these characters assembled at Ferny Hall, it’s a lot of fun to watch them come up against each other.

Who are our detectives?

In some way, everyone in the book acts as a detective as they try to figure each other out. There’s also Inspector Raglan, who is a combination of a few of the local detectives found in the novel. Even in the book, Raglan offers some comedic fun as he tries to keep up with Poirot. I like to think that in our play he begins as a bit of a bungler, but as the story progresses, he learns from Poirot and comes to admire him.

And of course, Caroline and James Sheppard act as investigators, in a way. They are as fascinated by Poirot as they are with the murder itself!

But Poirot is the genius in our midst. When he gathers all of the characters together in the drawing room at Fernly near the end of the play, he puts on his own bit of theatre for his audience of suspects. And what could be more fun than that?

Outset Mark Shanahan Head Shot

About Mark Shanahan

Mark Shanahan is a New York-based theatre artist whose work has been seen on and Off-Broadway, internationally, and at numerous regional stages across the United States.

He is the writer/director of The New York Times Critics’ Pick “A Sherlock Carol” (Off-Broadway Alliance nomination, Best New Play 2021), playing two seasons in New York and annually at London’s Marylebone Theatre. He is also the author of “A Merry Little Christmas Carol,” “See Monsters of the Deep,” the Off-Broadway and regional hit comedy “The Dingdong” (based on Feydeau’s" Le Dindon”), as well as numerous radio plays as creator of the White Heron Ghost Light series, featuring Christopher Plummer, Judith Ivey, Rhonda Ross, and other notables.

Shanahan has directed at stages such as Alley Theatre, George Street Playhouse, Virginia Stage, Arkansas Rep, White Heron, Mile Square Theatre, Hudson Stage, Theatre Squared, Fulton Opera House, Weston Playhouse, Orlando Shakespeare Festival, Florida Rep, Penguin Rep, Merrimack Rep, The Cape Playhouse, and many more.

As an actor, he has appeared on and Off-Broadway (“The 39 Steps,” “Tryst,” “The Shaugraun,” and others) and at many celebrated regional theatres.

Shanahan was recently announced as the incoming Artistic Director for the historic Westport Country Playhouse, in Westport, Connecticut.

He is proud to participate each year as the writer/director of the annual gala for The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a summer camp founded by Paul Newman to serve seriously ill children and their families.

A graduate of Brown University (BA) and Fordham University (MA, former adjunct faculty).

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