Blackeyed Theatre’s production of Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four is currently touring the UK. I caught up with the Sherlock himself, Luke Barton, to find out more about the tour and how it feels to play such an iconic character.
Can you tell me a little bit about Sign of Four?
The Sign of Four is the second in the Holmes stories and is the first introduction of the character of Mary Morstan, who we know goes on to marry Watson and becomes a central character in the remaining books. It begins with Mary coming to 221b Baker Street to ask for Sherlock’s assistance in solving the puzzle of her missing father. She is estranged from her father having left India, where he is a soldier, as a child and returning to England. When they arrange to meet in London to begin their reunion, he never shows up. Every year since then on the anniversary of his disappearance she receives a large and lustrous pearl in the post from a mysterious, anonymous benefactor. The play then takes Sherlock and Watson on an epic journey through the murky streets of South London in pursuit of stolen treasure, the missing father, a menacing wooden-legged man and his curious accomplice, all the way to colonial India and back. I’m not sure if TSOF is as well-known as the next story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it is just as thrilling in my opinion.
How does it feel to be playing such a legendary character as Sherlock Holmes?
It was quite daunting to begin with because of course there have been so many notable interpretations of the character through the years and because we have had such a wide-ranging audience – people who loved Jeremy Brett are as abundant as those who love Benedict Cumberbatch – I felt a bit of the weight of expectation. But I realised that actually everyone is coming to see this character do his thing, it isn’t about doing anything other than honouring that, and playing the character as is written in this story. This is the second in the series and so it is Holmes at the beginning of his career and I think you can really see Conan Doyle still developing the character and the relationship with Watson. I’m a younger man so I thought that was my way in: to play Holmes as he is still figuring out his process and how he works and still getting to grips with his unbelievable skills. The recurring description of him in this book is that he is an ‘automaton’ or ‘robotic’ and that interested me, I wanted to see how he becomes robot like when he is engaged in the action but also when he does not, when he more relaxed. Nick (the director) and I wanted to avoid playing him as autistic, which some more recent adaptations have. For us, his social awkwardness, eccentricity and his ability to ruffle feathers is because of his genius: he can look at you and know exactly where you have been, who with, for how long and what you did there, which is extraordinary. But he also enjoys that skill and being able to show that off to the person he has observed.
Were you a fan of Sherlock Holmes before taking on the role?
Oh definitely. I loved the stories and I particularly enjoyed the TV series. I remember reading TSOF on the Tube to work over a week or so and it sticking out for me as one of the best. I think it is hard not to be a Sherlock Holmes fan: the stories are fantastic and we all sort of want to have Holmes’ mind.
What has been the response to the tour so far?
It’s been really fantastic actually. I enter the show by coming out and standing on stage and looking out into the audience, and I love it because I’m always so excited by the sheer range of ages in our audience. We have had die-hard Holmes fans in (dressed in full costume including deerstalker) as well as some people who have never been to the theatre before. One lady said to me after a show in Peterborough that she had never been to see a performance at the theatre before but after this she would definitely start going more often. That was fantastic. Naturally, Sherlock stories are popular but people have really taken to the way we tell it too. It’s true to the book and the original world of Victorian London but also includes live music, a multi-rolling really dynamic set that transports us all around the world, with some exciting set pieces like the boat chase down the Thames.
Why do you think the Sherlock Holmes stories are still so appealing to people today?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot as the tour has gone on and seeing how well it has sold. I think there is something specific about the character of Sherlock – the way he thinks, the way he approaches a problem and can break down the most complex enigma, his ability to retain as much information – that we wish we had. Watson is attracted to Holmes’ lifestyle for the same reason. No matter how dangerous or how much he has to put up with Holmes’ difficult personality at times, the adventure and thrill of the chase is a lifestyle that I think we all wish we could live. I also think that there is something quite reassuring in the fact that no matter how complex or mysterious a problem that confronts Holmes, there is always a solution: nothing is too complicated and everything is solved, usually with justice being dealt fairly, which is satisfying. I think of Holmes as a kind of superhero, he has the unique skill (deduction) and the outfit (deerstalker) and his efforts always bring justice to those involved. There’s something universal in that. I also think that in these febrile times there is something refreshing about seeing a character who is so utterly devoted to facts and truth and chooses not to let his emotions get in the way of what is true. We need more people like Holmes.
What can audiences expect from the production?
Audiences can expect a thrilling story told in an exciting and innovative way. We are true to the book, and the production is very much grounded in the world of Victorian London as it is in the novel. But the staging, the music, the action adds flair and style to the storytelling. Whether you are a hardcore Holmes fan or someone new to the stories then I think you will love seeing a young Holmes and Watson embarking on another ripping adventure told in a way that is engaging, atmospheric and ultimately about celebrating how brilliant this story is. There is something very unique about the storytelling that one can do in the theatre, which I think suits the Sherlock Holmes stories, and our production captures the spirit of the novels and brings it jumping off the page.
Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four is on tour now. For more information visit here.
Photo credit: Mark Holliday