How Henry Goodman will bring Poirot alive on the Chichester stage

Two years ago Henry Goodman was supposed to be opening Chichester Festival Theatre’s summer season in Brecht’s Life of Galileo.

Jonathan Church, Ken Ludwig, Henry Goodman in rehearsal for Murder on the Orient Express Photo Johan Persson
Jonathan Church, Ken Ludwig, Henry Goodman in rehearsal for Murder on the Orient Express Photo Johan Persson

It didn’t happen.

Last year he was supposed be in Chichester as Hercule Poirot in Murder On The Orient Express.

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It didn’t happen then.

But the great news is that it is happening now – a chance to follow Poirot as he solves one of the most complex crimes of his career.

Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig and directed by Jonathan Church and running from May 13-June 4, it looks certain to be one of the great highlights of this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre season – a truly classic tale.

Hercule Poirot boards the legendary Orient Express, enjoying the prospect of a luxurious rail journey from Istanbul to Calais in the dead of winter.

The train is surprisingly packed for the time of year; only the intervention of the manager secures Poirot a first-class berth, alongside an intriguing and glittering company of international travellers. But just after midnight, the Orient Express screeches to a halt, marooned by a snowdrift. And by morning, one passenger is dead…

Henry is delighted at the prospect – after the false starts of 2020 and 2021 – finally to get back to Chichester, following his appearances in Yes, Prime Minister (2010) and also in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (2012-13), which was also directed by Jonathan Church.

“Murder On The Orient Express has got everything you could want. It is a great thriller and like all the really powerful works it reasserts certain qualities as times change. I’m really excited by it.

“What Ken Ludwig (the adaptor for the stage) has done is that he is very very true to the spirit of it and he takes us through the book to very directly connect with the audience. He is saying ‘Come back with me to 1934 and witness this case!’ There is context to it and there is shape.

“You’ve got all the momentum and all the dynamism of the book but you get through to it in a slightly different way. It was supposed to be last year and the year before it was supposed to be Galileo but the good thing is that it’s given me more time to prepare, to look at more at the novels and I really have found the research exciting. The information drip feeds a little river of instinct and you would never want to display that, you would never want to put that across in the show but you just hope that it confirms the instincts within you.

“First of all I read the novel very carefully and then it is interesting to see how the adaptation comes with the number of people involved, the story transformed through to the stage, the whole thing starting to look like a trail of one kind. There are certain clues as you read and you think ‘I see!’ and then the adaptation brings it thrillingly to the stage and makes all the brilliant descriptions in the book visible to the audience.

“You’ve also got to think about the mores of the era. Ken has truly taken us back to 1934. There are certain ways of thinking and behaving which in the novel were normal at the time but which when you see them now you might think ‘Well, that’s quite quaint.’ Again it’s the context.”

As for the role itself, what on earth does Henry do with images of Peter Ustinov as Poirot, of David Suchet as Poirot and, more recently, Kenneth Branagh as Poirot?

“It is the same problem you have with Richard III or Shylock or even Yes, Prime Minister which I did in Chichester. Such magnificent people have done such wonderful things with the roles in the past.

“I think what you do is that sometimes you just pinch interesting insights. You drink on what is the essence of what survives from one to the other but you remember that you are serving something that is bigger than any individual performance. You’re not trying to update it because then you move away from the essential. You’ve got to link it to the context of the performance and the original.

“I think there is a balance in making people’s shoulders go down. As a performer you have a sense of duty to hopefully bring out that character so that people can relax and think ‘Oh yes, I know this guy’ but at the same time you’ve got to bring something that is new to it. I think that’s embedded in the invitation to think along with you as the character. It’s not just about the peacockery of his mannerisms. I don’t think you have to let them become overwhelming, but you do want people to be thinking with you.

“And also you have got to be thinking what is it about this little guy that makes everybody feel so connected with him, and I think it is the same reason did Agatha Christie was so connected with him. She wanted to project into him this ability to judge and to assess and to have a moral compass. There is no doubt that in this particular story Poirot is under pressure and that’s unique to the writing. In this story Poirot is seriously taken to the edge of his own moral compass. Within the panache of the range of people that are gathered together they have all been through this traumatic experience. Poirot has got to embrace that trauma and yet stay true to his long-held beliefs.”

As for the staging: “It is exciting what Jonathan has teased me with and what I find exciting is the movement between the Chichester stage and the dangerous elements of the landscape that the passengers on the train are going through. We’re on a train going through a landscape of snow and mountains and the train gets caught in a terrible blizzard. You have got these forces of nature that create an intense intimacy. You’ve got this idea of nature and of its intense power squeezing these people together on this train.”

As for whether Henry sees this as the first in a series of Poirot appearances on the stage, he is happy to admit it’s far too early to say: “But let’s hope that is a problem that we have.”

Above all perhaps for the moment, it’s a question of enjoying the chance to get back to the stage.

“During the pandemic I had far too much time on my hands and to start thinking ‘Oh, is that it?’ I did a movie in Mexico and I did another movie in Malta and I did another movie and then suddenly everything stopped.

“I was learning Galileo while I was filming and there was such a momentum and then it was like everything just fell off a cliff. I became extremely concerned and fearful. I don’t think I went through a major depression or anything like that but I was introverted and the muscle of being on the stage and of taking and sharing an audience, I just started to realise that it was a muscle that needed to be used, just part of this gathering force of focus of being on stage. Without that to focus on I just fell back on being a pain in the neck to my wife! But actually in thinking about all these things I do think I learned a few things about myself which I hope I will be able to bring to the stage.”

Henry suspects that perhaps Poirot will find new resonances post pandemic. The point is that Poirot as a detective is an “âme solitaire”, a solitary soul as befits a detective who has to stand back and solve.

“And I think the link is that so many people had a forced exposure to pressure because of the pandemic and a forced sense of isolation. Because of the pandemic hopes started to become reduced. But I do also think that little characters like Poirot revive those hopes. You think of his flame, his insight, his moral code and you realise that they can all help us out and I am certainly feeling hope now too.”

The season

The 2022 season includes:

The Taxidermist’s Daughter, adapted for the stage by Kate Mosse, a new play based on her novel, directed by Róisín McBrinn, April 8-30, Festival Theatre.

Our Generation, a new play by Alecky Blythe, directed by Daniel Evans, a co-production with the National Theatre, April 22-May 14, Minerva Theatre.

Henry Goodman in Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie, adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig, directed by Jonathan Church, May 13-June 4, Festival Theatre.

Amanda Abbington, Frances Barber and Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend, a new play by Steven Moffat, directed by Mark Gatiss, May 21-July 9, Minerva Theatre.

Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child, a new play by Stephen Beresford, directed by Nicholas Hytner, June 13-25, Festival Theatre.

cft.org.uk; 01243 781312; tickets from £10.

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