Interview With… Philip Mansfield

The actor chatted to Emma Clarendon about playing Doctor Watson in Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Thing at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre.

Could you tell me a little more about the story of Sherlock Holmes and The Invisible Thing? Well, Holmes and Watson have been invited to the Gothic Estate of Miss Lucy Grendle in Kent, to investigate a suspicious drowning in the Estate’s lake, apparently committed by an invisible perpetrator. After meeting the local (and, of course, baffled) Police Inspector, Holmes and Watson begin their investigation, but cannot immediately find an explanation for the unusual goings on. Complicating matters further is Lucy Grendle herself, whom Holmes has had dealings with before…

How does it feel to play Dr Watson – one of the best known characters in literature? It is a little daunting. Playing one half of such an iconic duo comes with its own pitfalls. If you mention the names “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” to almost anyone, each person will instantly have their own image of the characters and how they should behave and interact; be it from reading the stories or from the countless films and TV shows. Some will see the classic Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce pairing, others Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke and we can’t discount the modern Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman version, which has really reignited the enthusiasm for the master detective. Therefore trying to satisfy the preconceptions and expectations of an audience whilst trying to put my own stamp on such a great character is proving a challenge. I’m sure there
will be enthusiasts of the stories who may not agree with my interpretation of the role. Nonetheless it is great fun and quite exciting to step into the shoes of a literary icon and bring him to life.

How do you see Dr Watson as a character – what is he like to play? Watson is Holmes’ humanity. Sherlock deals in facts and data and sees others as merely additions to that collection, making him socially distant and cold. Whereas Watson is the more socially adept, open and friendly. He is able to provide Sherlock with a view into the lives of “normal” people and
without him Holmes would not have that understanding and thus the stories would not work, as there would not be someone a reader or audience member could identify with. Watson also brings
an element of humour to the pair, be it both intentional and sometimes unintentional, and is the cypher for the audience to be able grasp Sherlock’s deductions as Watson is always the first that gets the full explanations.

Playing Watson is a little bit of a tightrope walk as there are some great moments of comedy for him in the play, which I don’t want to lose, but I also wouldn’t want that to cloud the professionalism of the man. I certainly don’t want him to be seen as a buffoon, for not only is he a Doctor, but Holmes would not put up with someone who was too bumbling as a partner. He does have his moments of acuteness and ability to help Holmes in the right direction, so it’s trying to strike the right balance between the humour and the sharpness. Also, getting the relationship right and believable with Holmes is key, as the production lives or dies on that. Fortunately, Stephen Chance (who plays Sherlock) has made that relationship very easy to discover and to explore with. Plus, the writer, Greg
Freeman, has created some lovely scenes between the two men and has given Watson a bit of sparkiness. This Watson knows how to push Holmes’ buttons and, on occasion, albeit fleetingly, does get the upper hand on the great detective.

What was it that made you want to be part of this production? Initially, the title caught my attention and made me wonder if there would or would not be an actual “invisible thing” and how Holmes and Watson go about proving or disproving it. I then spotted it had been adapted by Greg Freeman and I had seen some of his previous work which I had thoroughly enjoyed and been very impressed by. On top of which I discovered, when auditioning, that the production was to be directed by David Phipps-Davis, whom I had worked with before on Congreve’s “The Way of the World” and had always wanted the opportunity to repeat the experience. There was also the attraction of performing in a new adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story moments away from 221B Baker Street itself, at the Rudolf
Steiner Theatre.

What do you think it is about the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson that still continues to fascinate audiences today? They are the original “buddy-detective” story. The strength of the tales are always held up by the relationship of the central characters. Two opposites (as in this case) or those who are similar,working together to solve a crime.  We’ve had many examples of that type throughout the years and they’ve always been enjoyed. Poirot and Hastings, Starsky and Hutch, Morse and Lewis, Cagney and Lacey. But Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson were the first that really captured the public’s imagination and this is mainly because of Holmes’ computer-like deductive reasoning and Watson’s ability to humanise the situations in his telling of them as narrator. From the baffling to the bizarre, the tales of the master detective and his sidekick, with their elements of the unsettling, the twisting plots, the variety of suspects and villains and ultimately the remarkable revelations deduced by Holmes have, and always will, keep audiences engaged. Everyone likes to see if they can solve the crime themselves before the culprit is unmasked. There is also the period in which the original stories are set. All pre-forensics and without the use of any of the crime-solving
apparatus that a modern detective can call upon. So the resolving of the plot comes entirely down to Holmes deductions and use of his intelligence – and someone that clever has always held fascination
for audiences.

What can audiences expect from this production? This production of Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Thing will hopefully provide audiences with an evening of perplexing murder, supernatural occurances, great sleuthing, dark suspicion, Gothic melodrama and moments of lightheartedness; all of which combine to create a classic Sherlock
Holmes mystery,  ideal for both fans and newcomers to the world’s most famous detective.

By Emma Clarendon

Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Thing will play at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre from the 17th July.

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