Since Arthur Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in 1886, other writers have run with the characters, creating their own mysteries to be solved by the deductive duo. Seattle actor and playwright Katie Forgette has mashed up the fictional Holmes and Watson with fictionalized versions of the very real Oscar Wilde and Lillie Langtry. The result — Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily, a comic mystery — opens in Vancouver on Dec 28.
Director William B Davis (best known as The Smoking Man on The X-Files) says the inclusion of real people alongside fictional characters presents challenges but perhaps none so great as capturing Holmes and Watson themselves. Historical figures need to be approached in ways that respect the facts, he explains, but audience expectations around authentically portraying Holmes and Watson can be equally or even more daunting.
The play owes much of its levity to its fictional portrayal of Wilde, who, in real life, was responsible for many of the greatest things ever said. Wilde is probably on more “living or dead dinner guest” lists than anyone, so writing him into a contemporary play is a good bet.
Langtry, played by two-time Jessie nominee Corina Akeson, may not resonate with modern audiences the way her friend Wilde does, but she was a sparkplug in her day, known as the Jersey Lily, for the Channel Island where she was born. An actress who made men (and some women) swoon, this play supposes she is being blackmailed over purloined love letters to a certain royal.
The intrigue is byzantine, with a bit of genderbending of the sort the British stage has featured at least since Shakespeare’s time.
“When I sat down to think about writing a Sherlock Holmes, I wanted to do something different,” Forgette says. “I’d always been a big fan of Oscar Wilde, and when I discovered Lillie Langtry — she’s also a stunning character — and the fact that they were friends, I thought, ‘Holy cow.’ She lived her life kind of like she was a guy — so really attractive to women who are independent.”
Having experienced the theatre’s deficiency of good roles for women, Forgette tries to write plays that are more 50-50, she says. In this case, the gender balance isn’t quite there, but the women in the play are forces of nature.
“I wanted to at least come up with two really strong women’s roles that are not damsels in distress but who have large appetites,” she says. “And who might be on occasion venal and make the unladylike choice, you might say.”
The Vancouver production is by Theater Crossing, whose founder, Brent Fidler, plays Holmes. “I’ve been looking to produce a Sherlock for a long time, but most of the pieces Conan Doyle wrote were kind of dated parlour-room [dramas]. They just didn’t really hold up for a modern audience,” Fidler says.
Forgette’s script stays true to the cadence of the time but seems paced for 21st-century attention spans, with a few casting twists. Watson, one of literature’s more notorious ladies’ men, is played by openly gay actor Tim Bissett. Appropriately enough, Wilde is also played by a gay actor, Seth Little, who was thrown into the role just weeks before curtain after two previous Wildes left the cast. Playing the notorious and notoriously witty Wilde is a balancing act, Little says.
“I don’t want to be a total queen, but at the same time I don’t want to be afraid of being flamboyant or getting into the part,” he says. “It’s just being able to find the happy marriage. I’m trying to be seriously unserious, I guess.”
As Wilde, Little gets all the play’s best laughs. “All his lines in the play are absolutely outrageous,” he says. “Even with a gun to his head he’s saying, ‘The tension is so horrible I hope it lasts.’ That’s his coping mechanism, I think. He’s always apparently flippant.”
Bissett has given thought to the relationship between Holmes and Watson, one of the written word’s most famous male twosomes.
“My feeling about their relationship is that it’s a very deep relationship, a very personal one, that they’re great kindred spirits in many ways and great fans of each other,” he says. “That’s one thing I really love about those characters. I think they are an iconic example of male bonding.”