By BRUCE DENNILL
Michele Maxwell plays the role of the stern, petulant Mrs Boyle in the new Pieter Toerien production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, famously the play with longest initial run in theatre history, at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre.
How different is it to be part of The Mousetrap, relative to a show where the plot isn’t as well known and where the details and twists aren’t as beloved by fans?
Well, for one thing, certain reviewers don’t understand how the whole thing – not giving away the ending, for starters! – works, which is unbelievable. For me, though, I’d never seen it before I started working on it, so I came to it fresh. Although with Mrs Boyle, there was a whole set circumstances I had to understand to get into character.
There are other touches that make this version a little different. Our director, Jonathan Tafler, pulled the period forward from 1952 to 1962, which means there are some subtle changes in the costumes and the music and other bits and pieces.
It’s also worth remembering that there’s more to the play than just a crime being solved. There’s a big focus on the relationships, which are tricky – you have eight disparate people cooped up in a hotel, and nobody really likes each other. It’s also interesting that Agatha Christie based the story on a real incident involving the abuse of children on a remote farm – there’s plenty to think about.
Mrs Boyle is a wonderful role. You get to be everything society generally says you shouldn’t be; be the woman who everyone loves to hate.
She’s a woman in an interesting time. In 1962 in England, the Conservative era was ending and the country was moving into the Labour era, but she was from the old school, a place where she’d always say, “This is how it’s done!”.
She’s also a magistrate; a woman in a man’s world. That means she’s had to set herself in a certain way – in her posture, the way she looks and the way she acts. I want to play her as stern, but not as a battle-axe. There are plenty of dynamics and undercurrents – the abuse of children, as I mentioned; hints of sexual deviations and more.
Mrs Boyle says things others want to but don’t. I’ve never played someone this austere before, which in some ways means she’s not much fun to play. But I like to think I’m a serious actress, so it all works out.
The show has a lovely cast, including the experience of Malcolm Terrey and Mark Wynter alongside some new faces. How do you all relate to each other offstage versus the way your characters get on in the play?
It’s an interesting cast – we’re all real characters…as it were. It’s quite a musical cast. We all sing a little, which is a pleasant aspect to explore, and there’s a lovely shared sense of humour.
Once we’re on stage, it’s our characters relating, though it is possible to be more relaxed when you know the actor well. We are expected, though, to stay within the boundaries of our functions.
Your family has been and is heavily involved in the arts, and as well as being an actress in theatre, film and TV, you’re a singer, composer and musician to boot. It’s an incredibly challenging life to choose, though it’s rewarding when you’re working. How have you managed over the years?
There were other things I wanted to do before I studied music – healing and nursing, and the spiritual side of things were also a focus. In that regard, some parts of this industry cause conflict. The relentless self-promotion, particularly, is anathema to me.
The nature of this job is that, as an actress, you have to inhabit others. And there’s always another actor at your heels. Sometimes you’ll only get a part because of pure luck.
There’s an ongoing tussle between worrying about what people think – and needing that input to be fulfilled – and being content with what you have. It’s about growing your consciousness so that you’re happy with how you’re doing, whatever the circumstances.
There’s pressure, of course. The role of theatre has been minimalised in the media, so to get people to come, we have to be damn good.
How important is simply staying busy?
Very. I do a lot of teaching and dubbing. I teach at schools and at AFDA, and I teach piano music theory. It’s a cliché, but the more you do, the more you keep doing.
I’ve lived in Johannesburg, London and Cape Town. I’ve now been in Cape Town since 2009, and there’s a different energy there. I have to watch that I don’t become a bit lazy and just enjoy the place and ll there is to do there. In Joburg, there’s more access to television. I think, though, that the last time I was on stage in Johannesburg was in Death Of A Salesman with Bill Flynn at the Joburg Theatre [in 2001].
Are there significant changes, positive or negative, that you’ve noticed in the South African theatre scene during your career?
Musicals and comedies have really taken flight. From a management point of view, that’s where the good money is. On the downside, fewer people are happy driving at night now, and there are fewer major theatres around, though perhaps there are more little theatres in Cape Town than there used to be. Things like Netflix and Showmax have made home entertainment more easily accessible, too – people have more choice than they used to.
But we have to say a huge thank you to the producers for giving us so much wonderful live entertainment – and such a range of productions. I think the joy of supporting live theatre is that it transports you. The aspect of it all happening right in front of you is magical.