The Theatre of Ngaio Marsh

BRIAN McNEILL

Marton Cottage (a misnomer if ever there was one, for a more baronial dwelling I have yet to discover either side of 'the black stump') stands firmly entrenched in the Cashmere Hills above the city of Christchurch. The 'cottage' is Dame Ngaio's family home; and I had flown down there with the express intention of asking the real Dame Ngaio to please stand up and give. I was determined to get her to reveal all. No one else had accomplished it; and although I had no wish to find myself placed amongst the hallowed gossip vultures of Grub Street, I felt sure that with an elegant turn of the screw, shattering revelations would stir their way into my shell-like ear: confessions so macabre in their implication that even Dame Ngaio's favourite cat Pinkerton would be shocked to the tips of his paws.

Admittedly, during the days preceding my Momentous Journey South I had been experiencing some difficulty in mentally extricating myself from Dame Ngaio's erstwhile Sisters in Crime. Flickering clockwork visions of Ms Sayers, Ms Christie, and Ms Daphne du Maurier would leap up at me during my homework hours. There was altogether too much murder in the air - too much gruesome dispatchment. My assignment was meant to be the Theatre, not a learned post-mortem on, say Spinsters in Jeopardy.

Back-stage with the cast of Othello, Sydney 1949

I'd read and heard of Ms Marsh's reputation in the theatre of course: yet I, was far too young at the time of her greatest triumphs in the 'forties and 'fifties to bother paying much lip service to them now. It was all yesterday and before our present theatrical flowering. Even the formidable appellation of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire given her in recognition of her work in the New Zealand theatre failed to cut much ice. Sobering to think how ephemeral this playmaking business is - those great days with her Canterbury University students, and all she has left to show is a posy of yellowing programmes, a few incidental snapshots - as much as anyone would be likely to keep over a period of forty years.

Her memories are there of course: and by God are they still as fresh as daisies! Ask her the date and locale of a specific production and back comes the reply as crisp as sniper fire. (Oh, that I may remember as much in my eightieth year.) Memories of her 'boys' as she still calls them, and of the times they spent together in the cut and thrust of production.

James Laurenson in Macbeth, Civic Theatre, 1962

'Nothing binds human beings together more quickly than theatrical endeavour' she tells us in her autobiography Black Beech and Honeydew. 'From the toughest Rugby player to the most owlish of intellectuals, from that ferociously brooding adolescent to the mildest of white mice. For my part,' (and I am still quoting from Black Beech) 'I loved them heartily for taking fire as they did and was most grateful, as I still am, to those odd responsive creatures for all the adventures upon which we have embarked together.' And then, as she reiterated to me on that day we met: 'There was a good amateur theatre over here in the 'forties, but nobody knew anything very much. My students were absolutely raw material. But of course they hadn't acquired any bad tricks to unlearn. A helluva lot to learn, but nothing to unpick and I loved them - I found them marvellously quick.'

Shakespeare is Dame Ngaio's first and greatest passion. Her mother had been a gifted amateur actress and both parents humoured Ngaio's own hell-bent-for-glory entry on to the boards. The Alan Wilkie Shakespeare Company gave her, in 1920, her first taste of professionalism. Cast by the 'Guv'nor' Alan Wilkie, as a German maid in a piece called The Luck of the Navy, she followed this up with small parts in A Temporary Gentleman and The Rotters, both by H. F. Maltby. The fourth play of the season was Hindle Wakes, in which she again played the part of a maid. The tour ended in Wellington and Ngaio returned to Christchurch and home where she settled down to her other great love: painting.

Then came an offer from an English Comedy company and off she went again: this time on a tour of the 'smalls' in the North Island. The company, a little less impressive and a little less ambitious than the Wilkie Company, quietly folded at the end of three months and once again she returned home - but not to settle. She'd been inveigled into writing a one act play and together with a select band of Good Companions a company was formed to open in Havelock North and Hastings.

On her return to Christchurch after this third expedition she was invited to direct for several amateur societies. One of these, 'Charities Unlimited' was committed to the staging of spectaculars, the revenues of which were distributed to various charitable organizations in and around Christchurch. On one such occasion, the producer having taken ill a few days before opening night, Ngaio was called in to take over the job. On the strength of her success and willingness to step in at a desperate juncture, she was asked to direct the following year's production.

In those days you learnt by trial and error. There were no drama schools - no resident professional companies in which to study the director's craft. You simply did what you could with what you had. It was not until she reached England, in 1928, that she had her first real taste of quality theatre. Queuing up outside the Aldwych or the Old Vic. Watching the first of J.B. Priestley's 'time' plays, or Charles Laughton playing in Beauty. One play she felt she simply must have a crack at was Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. She'd seen it first at the Westminster Theatre in a production directed by Tyrone Guthrie. . . 'I hadn't read it. I knew nothing whatever about it and that is the ideal way of seeing this play for the first time. It takes you by the throat and shakes the daylights out of you. . . I was broody with it, on and off, for some eighteen years before I finally got it out of my system in a burst of three separate productions in three separate countries.'

Left to right, Fred Betts, Elizabeth Wily and Vincent Orange in Twelfth Night: the inaugural production of the Ngaio Marsh Theatre, 1967

It was about this time too that she wrote her first detective story. It was never published and she can't remember what happened to the manuscript. One day, after she'd been nearly five years in Britain, a cable arrived from home. Her mother was dying. She packed her bags and returned to New Zealand on the first boat.

I asked Dame Ngaio why she hadn't written more for the theatre. 'I'm surprised myself that I haven't - I've written several books on the theatre.' Her first full-length dramatic work was a dramatisation of her book The Nursing Home Murders, written in collaboration with Dr Henry Jellet. The story of its subsequent production is humorously detailed in Black Beech and Honeydew. ]ellet worked on the script with Dame Ngaio and they were going to send it to Dame Ngaio's London agent with a view towards having the play performed in Britain: but about that time their attention. was drawn to a similar piece on the same theme: Men in White; so they decided not to pursue the matter further.

Some years later she dramatised her book False Scent, and this piece toured successfully around the English provinces. Henry Fielding, the impresario, was all set to open the play in London but he couldn't get hold of a suitably impressive star name. No West End actress worth her salt was going to appear in a play where she was obliged to be bumped off at the end of the first act. Donald Wolfit suggested to Dame Ngaio that she rewrite the last act in flashback thus allowing the actress to rise again: but by that time everybody had become heartily tired of the venture and the production ground to a halt. Her third attempt at the West End was Death Sails at Midnight. A dramatisation from her book Singing in the Shrouds. Like False Scent this also enjoyed a run in the provinces but faded into obscurity on the fringes of London.

Left to right, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Dennison and Dulcie Gray at the Savoy Hotel, London: a publicity party to launch someone else's novel
(photograph by Mark Gerson)

Her one play written for the theatre and owing nothing to any of her previous fiction work was A Unicorn for Christmas. First produced by The New Zealand Players in 1955, it was later turned into an opera (New Zealand's first) and performed in front of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in Auckland in 1967. In addition to all this TV2 has recently dramatised four of her detective stories: Vintage Murder, Opening Night, Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool. The scripting for this series was done independently of Dame Ngaio and when I asked her for her feelings on the finished result she had this to say: 'George Baker as chief inspector Roderick Alleyn I liked very much - he played with great tact. And Don Selwyn as the Maori doctor in Vintage Murder. But many of the characterisations I thought were very wrong indeed.' She considers that there should have been much more definition of character in performance and more overall pace.

'Dialogue,' she says (and this is one of her favourite remarks as a director)... 'Dialogue is like a forward movement in Rugby. The actors must throw the lines one to the other, moving the scene forward to the point of climax. If it is held up at anyone point it's exactly as if they've dropped the ball. . . There was no team element in those television performances - none.'

Dame Ngaio's most memorable work in the theatre was done for the University of Canterbury Drama Society, during and after the war years, and continuing in full spate up to and including 1967. Usually one playa year, always a Shakespeare, with several of the productions being subsequently toured outside of Christchurch to Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, including an Australian tour of Othello and Six Characters in 1949. In addition to this, on her third visit to England in 1950 she formed her own company to tour Australia and New Zealand.

'The idea behind the British Commonwealth Theatre Company was, as its title suggests, a synthesis of players from Great Britain and the several arms of the Commonwealth, as it was then constituted. We were to try ourselves out in Australia and New Zealand and, upon the results of this tour, decide whether to continue and extend the venture.'

Julius Caesar, with Robin Alborn as Marcus Antonius, Civic Theatre, 1964

They opened in Sydney with The Devil's Disciple and then went on to tour New Zealand with the Shaw and two additional plays: Twelfth Night and Six Characters. Over the six months' tour the company's fortunes swung wildly. From a brilliant opening reception in Auckland to the final night in Blenheim - where the inhabitants of Shakespeare's Illyria were joined by a family of rats and where Feste's final lute song, 'Heigh ho, the wind and the rain' was sung beneath a trickle of storm water drifting in unbidden from a hole in the flies.

After Blenheim the cast dispersed, with many of the principal players returning to England. The company included some fascinating names: John Schlesinger, the film director - still an actor at the time but already with two cinema documentaries under his belt; Peter Howell, who later attained tele-fame in Emergency Ward 10; Brigid Lenihan, who went on to become one of New Zealand's most accomplished actresses; and Peter Varley, whose voice is heard regularly on New Zealand radio drama.

Indeed the number of now established performers who have passed through Dame Ngaio's hands over her many years as a director reads like a Who's Who in Commonwealth theatre. Elric Hooper, the present director of the Court Theatre, gained his early experience under Dame Ngaio; as did James Laurenson, Bernard Kearns, William Scannell, Bill Stalker, Catherine Wilkin, Gary Langford, Jonathon Elsom and innumerable others. Canterbury University has paid homage to her services by naming their new and impressive theatre after her and Ngaio Marsh's presence, in spirit, if not in person, is likely to remain within those walls as a potent source of energy in the years to come.

I did not, during my brief pilgrimage to Dame Ngaio, get her to reveal all as I'd originally hoped. But then as an old acquaintance of Dame Ngaio's said to me afterwards: 'She is as she is.' And that 'is' appears to be sufficient enough. I personally found her charming and gracious: marvellously spry and as ready to listen as to talk. A director's work in the theatre - and she would be the first to agree with me - is soon forgotten. Fortunately for us she has left, in her published production notes, some hint of her still boundless enthusiasm, command and erudition... 'The fool in Twelfth Night is not the fool in Lear; Malvolio's downfall was not conceived as a tragic downfall. He would not, therefore, be allowed to gloom himself into a sort of cross-gartered Richard III. No: he would be as acid as a lime and as lean as a praying mantis. . . '

How I would love to have seen her Twelfth Night: her Hamlet, her King Lear and Midsummer Night's Dream; her Othello and Six Characters in Search of an Author. Christchurch has been well served by Dame Ngaio. But then too (and let us not dismiss the fact) those productions with her 'boys' were for her, the happiest days of her life.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 13 Spring 1979