Black Coffee at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Last week, Alex and I took a spin up to Winnipeg’s Exchange District to see Black Coffee, Christie’s first play (and her only one with Poirot). The Royal MTC put on this play in contribution to the 17th annual Master Playwright Fest, which this year featured Agatha Christie (dubbed ChristieFest). Many Winnipeg theatre companies tried their hand at Christie plays, including The Mousetrap and The Hollow. Free events during ChristieFest included public viewings of the PBS documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie (with David Suchet) and the films Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

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Now, I was very excited, as this was my own first Christie play. I’d read both the script of Black Coffee as well as Charles Osborne’s novelization– but of course, plays really do need to be seen! The reviews had been a bit lackluster, but their critique was more directed toward a perceived dullness in Christie’s play itself, not the performance. Well, knowing what to anticipate, I could live with that.  🙂

The cast included Lorne Kennedy as Poirot, Arne MacPherson as Hastings, Ross McMillan as Sir Claud Amory (and Japp), and Claire Armstrong as Lucia Amory. Kennedy gave an especially good performance of Poirot– sometimes, I swear, channeling Suchet. And MacPherson was a likeable, if highly excitable, Hastings. 🙂  One particularly noticeable deviation from the original play is that the secretary Raynor was changed to a woman– “Edwina,” played by Miriam Smith. This was perhaps to balance the male/female ratio.

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The pince-nez and lapel vase are distinctively Suchet’s Poirot. But Lorne Kennedy wore them well.

The set and lighting were really beautiful. Having myself specialized in trompe l’oeil in university and having done some set painting, I was particularly interested in the forced perspective garden scene beyond the French windows. For some reason, I was also mesmerized by the reproduction of a painting of Samuel Johnson high on the wall. It seemed to lend a comfortable, fitting, 18th-century “Sir Joshua Reynolds” sort of air to the distinguished country house set.

Christie herself was not particularly fond of this play, and by all accounts it’s not among her best. It’s a typical cozy mystery with conventional stock characters– the noted scientist, the misunderstood girl, the blackmailer, the vamp, etc. Anyone who is familiar with the story The Mysterious Affair at Styles will notice some pretty obvious plot-borrowing. Christie also borrowed the occasional quote from her own stories. This line in Black Coffee can be found almost verbatim in the story “The Chocolate Box.”

POIROT: Madame, it is sometimes difficult to set a dog on the scent. But once he has found it, nothing on earth will make him leave it. Not if he is a good dog. And I, madame, I, Hercule Poirot, am a very good dog!

Charles Osborne’s adaptation included even more lifting of dialog from Christie stories, including “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star'” and several others. C’est curieux! Also curious is Hastings’ apparent eagerness to be vamped, considering that he’s already been out in Argentina which means he’s already married at the time this play is set. Oh, Hastings…

It was an enjoyable evening and the audience seemed to have fun with the performance. The program was cute, too, including not only Christie facts but suggestions on how to make great coffee!

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My only real regret was not being able to get to more of ChristieFest this February. We didn’t learn of most of the events until it was too late, and being the self-professed greatest Poirot fan in at least Manitoba  😉  this was an embarrassing oversight on my part. But well done, Royal MTC, on an enjoyable interpretation of Black Coffee.  🙂

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Poirot as linguist

“There is not much against him, except the fact that nothing is known of his antecedents, and that he speaks too many languages for a good Englishman! (Pardon me, mon ami, but, as linguists, you are deplorable!)”
-“The Kidnapped Prime Minister”

* * * * *

Based on what is explicitly stated in Christie’s own books, we can know that Poirot is fluent in at least four languages: French, English, German, and Italian. The French and English are self-evident. In Murder on the Orient Express, he conducts interviews with the passengers in three languages; this is where we learn that he is conversant in German. In the episode The Clocks, Poirot uses his knowledge of the construction of the German language to clear a certain English-speaking (but actually German) couple from suspicion.

We know he speaks Italian from this charming moment in Christie’s play, Black Coffee:

Carelli: Ah! Monsieur Poirot. Vous voulez me questionner?
Poirot: Si, Signor Dottore, si lei permette.
Carelli. Ah! Lei parla Italiano?
Poirot: Si, ma preferisco parlare in Francese.
Carelli: Alors, qu est-ce que vous voulex me demander?
Hastings: I say, what the hell is all this?
Poirot: Ah, the poor Hastings! We had better speak English.

It is also perfectly possible that Poirot was fluent in Flemish (that is, Belgian Dutch), which would seem a useful asset as head of police in the city of Brussels. But to my recollection, nothing is mentioned of this in the books. Hastings once or twice describes Poirot’s habits as “Flemish,” but the language is not commented upon. Only in the televised adaptation of The Chocolate Box is there a conversation at the Déroulard house about the use of the Flemish language.

The television series adds further glimpses of Poirot’s cosmopolitan linguistic skills in episodes such as Triangle at Rhodes, in which he ably poses some questions to the locals in Greek…

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…And in Murder in Mesopotamia, which has the following:

Hastings: “I didn’t know you spoke Arabic, Poirot.”
Poirot: “Just a few words that I have picked up, Hastings. One should never squander the opportunity that travel affords.”

In The Labours of Hercules, it is revealed that Poirot had never studied the Classics, having “got on very well without them,” at which point he is treated to a Homeric epithet in the original Greek, quoted by his friend Dr. Burton. However, in one of his labours, that of the Stymphalean Birds, he is able to solve the crime with his understanding of the average Englishman’s ignorance of foreign languages, inspiring a young man to up his linguistic game.

Poirot also admits that he knows no Russian in the case of “The Double Clue,” which is why he purchases First Steps in Russian to study the Cyrillic alphabet on a hunch. He learns enough of the alphabet to be ready when another Cyrillic clue of the same type– this time a monogrammed handkerchief instead of a cigarette case– presents itself to him in his adventure on the Orient Express some years later.

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Poirot’s English vocabulary is pretty extraordinary– not terribly surprising, considering his long-term residency in London. All the same, there are several funny moments in the books in which he expresses bewilderment at some colloquial turn of phrase. For example, there’s this little conversation with Hastings from The A.B.C. Murders:

“Perhaps some convivial idiot who had had one over the eight.”

Comment? Nine? Nine what?”

“Nothing– just an expression. I meant a fellow who was tight. No, damn it, a fellow who had had a spot too much to drink.”

Merci, Hastings– the expression ‘tight’ I am acquainted with…”

Peter Ustinov, when playing the detective in the 1980s, took issue somewhat with the dialogue that Christie wrote for her detective. “On the printed page, Poirot is no more Belgian than Major Thompson is English. In language terms we probably see him as one of those foreign schoolmasters whose English is too correct– all very fluent and fluid and quite artificial. Remember that Poirot only puts the simplest words into French, the complex ones are always left in English.” Christie herself sometimes describes Poirot, through other characters, as appearing as a sort of “parody” of a Frenchman. For my part, Ustinov’s critique does not deter my (and presumably many fans’) enjoyment of the character’s dialogue. When Poirot uses simple French phrases like “mon ami,” it’s fairly obvious that this isn’t because he doesn’t know how to say “my friend” in English– rather, he relapses into French for comfortable phrases, or idioms that are better expressed in his native tongue and perhaps also known to his English hearers (e.g., “cherchez la femme” or “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”). Also, as the detective explains to Mr. Satterthwaite at the end of Three Act Tragedy:

“It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly… And so, you see, I put people off their guard.”

The painted miniature books (3)

The eight Hastings novels were finished, but I wasn’t quite finished with putting Hugh Fraser on the book covers. After all, there were five short story collections yet to go, two of which feature the character prominently, as well as Black Coffee. “But Black Coffee is a novelized play, and wasn’t filmed,” you say, sagaciously. Shut up, I’m going to have a complete set, dangit!!

I cheated on Black Coffee by collecting a large number of stills throughout the series of Poirot and Hastings with tea or coffee cups… there are a lot of them… and finally choosing this shot from “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” for the cover. There’s a cup on the table, and a Highly Ambiguous Hastings with a Highly Ambiguous Poirot, neither of which have clear faces. This seemed appropriate in light of my shameful trickery.

Is it just me, or is the quote from Black Coffee, like so many other quotes from that book, a duplicate from something in The Murder on the Links or some other book?

Is it just me, or is the quote from Black Coffee, like so many other quotes from that book, a duplicate from something in The Murder on the Links or some other book?

Poirot’s Early Cases, on the other hand, features an honest shot and matching quote from a story in the actual collection: “The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly.” It’s one of my favorite Poirot/Hastings visuals for the sheer loveliness of the surroundings, with Poirot characteristically holding forth. The book color was a sort of “twilight gray,” as it would be the penultimate in book listing, next to the inky-dark Curtain. The image of the two strolling away from the viewer also seemed appropriate in that wistful light.

“A pleasing little problem, obscure and charming,” murmured Poirot. “I will investigate it for you with pleasure.”

And finally, I finished off with Hastings in Poirot Investigates (I’ve given away three copies of that book this year, ma foi). I returned to my deceitful ways by painting a scene from “Murder in the Mews,” which is not in this collection. But I was very keen to paint this shot. The scene is a fun one (although Poirot is not actually investigating as such in this moment). And it’s difficult to find shots of the sort I could use where Hastings and Poirot are so close in size, rather than a less-distinct Hastings hovering behind Poirot’s shoulder; fine for film but harder for miniature painting.

It might be that I used the shot here instead of the Murder in the Mews collection because I’d already decided on a shot from that particular episode that featured Japp, and I wanted to make sure he got on a cover or two as well. There are even fewer Japp novels than Hastings novels. “Then why,” you ask with superior tones, “didn’t you just choose a different Japp shot for Poirot Investigates, since he features in the collection, and use this picture for the Murder in the Mews collection?” …Shut up.

No, actually it was because Hastings doesn’t feature in the stories from the Murder in the Mews collection, though he’s in the episode, and I didn’t want Hastings on book covers in which he wasn’t an appearing character, like Murder in Mesopotamia or Evil Under the Sun.

Poirot investigates... golf. The quote is from

Poirot investigates… golf. The quote is from “The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan.”