Come, Tell Me How You Live
Over 5 days in September the International Agatha Christie Festival will takeover Torre Abbey for a programme featuring visual arts, exhibitions, tours, talks, poetry, music, film, dance and workshops. The Shorely spoke to new Festival Director, James Tyson about the connecting themes and shift in programming.
You're new to the festival. How and why did you get involved with the International Agatha Christie Festival?
I saw an advertisement announcing that a director was wanted to lead a multi-art form festival inspired from the life and works of Agatha Christie and that would include archaeology, history, literature, visual arts as well as Torbay itself. I first came to Torbay when I was a kid, and always loved it, so that’s what connected me.
Agatha Christie wrote 78 novels, 19 plays and 100 short stories. Why did you select Come, Tell Me How You Live as the book from which to theme the festival?
She describes Come, Tell Me How You Live as a “labour of love”. Whilst she was incredibly prolific by the standards of any writer, it is this book that I feel was written because she had something she wanted to write, that reflected an experience that was precious to her. When you start reading this book it really is a kind of journey, of encounters, and the absurdity of travel and one’s own preconceptions and comforts. Agatha Christie in many ways never left Torbay, even though she travelled extensively and her books also reflect this observation of so many places that she visited and explored through her life. And so Come, Tell Me How You Live opens a space to both invite in the stranger, to step outside of one’s comfort zone, as well as to share one’s own experiences, wherever we may be.
The programme feels radically different to previous years, with works from local and international artists, authors and performers - from Torbay to France to Iran. Can you tell us more about the commissioning?
The commissioning in many ways was quite simple, as this began with meeting and getting to know the work of some of the fantastic artists and cultural organisations based around Torbay and South Devon – such as Doorstep Arts, Encounters, Dance in Devon, Trio of Men, Play Torbay, Sound Communities and others that are doing really wonderful work bringing people together to enjoy and experience art and share stories across all ages. So the programme really began from here – giving ourselves the liberty that if Agatha Christie was someone who enjoyed participating in and experiencing art (whether studying piano in Paris, or taking dance classes, or listening to stories, or on an archaeological dig uncovering dusty objects buried 3000 years ago in Syria), rather than merely re-presenting the characters and stories that she created – perhaps we can rather begin a different journey inspired from the things that also inspired her. Around this I wanted to bring other artists who even if they did not meet, have perhaps followed lives in different contexts, that share some of the curiosities, questions, and preoccupations that Agatha Christie also explored in her own fiction.
Held within Torre Abbey, an 800-year-old museum, that is both historically and culturally rich, how does IACF integrate and challenge its Festival home?
We’ll see! Torre Abbey is an amazing labyrinth of time and history; you enter a doorway from the twelfth century and step into a dining from the eighteenth century, and then step out onto a lawn that overlooks the wonderful pitch-n-putt course with the glistening blue sea…. After the Grinagog festival and the recent Face 2 Face exhibition it’s really inspiring to see how contemporary music and art can breathe life and harbour new creations that are made all the more resonant because of the generations of history (and desecration) that remain present.
This year’s IACF reveals more about the woman behind the fiction than focusing on the works themselves. How has it changed your perception of Agatha Christie?
I remember as a teenager reading a letter in Torquay Museum written from Agatha Christie to Joan Hickson, who later became famous for playing the role of Miss Marple. I quite liked the TV adaptations, and even the film of Murder on the Orient Express - although I found them rather disturbing – perhaps it was just the quality of TV and film that amplifies for the purposes of effect, what is already quite a violent story. So I stopped watching these programmes. When I saw this announcement to make a festival in Torbay, perhaps I was curious to think about how this place by the sea and its surrounding countryside could connect us more fundamentally to a sense of place and story-telling, the things we became fascinated by, or even make a living from. As I started work on the festival I hadn’t realised, or had forgotten, what a remarkable place Torbay itself had been, with writers, scientists and artists from all across the world who came to live or visit Torbay, whether as a resort town with a mild climate, or as the site of some of the earliest known remains of prehistoric man and its unique geological history. I realised perhaps this was the gentle inspiration that set Agatha Christie on her journey as well as reinvigorated her throughout her life.
From hard core Christie fans to culture lovers and families looking for a creative day out - what can these different audiences expect from their IACF experience?
Agatha Christie was quite a modest lady, even if she became a global figure of considerable fame. I think this was why she continued to enjoy her interest in things. So rather than focusing on the icon of Agatha Christie, let’s make IACF an opportunity to bring together our own different histories, and to meet other people and discover other ways of experiencing and communicating about the world around us. For families this can be making a painting, or creating a museum exhibit, or watching an amazing performance. It can be listening to an author talk about a book they’ve written – and why they’ve written it. Or it be merely discovering the layer of history that are present within Torre Abbey and Torbay itself – as well as the beautiful flowers and plants, and how these – as Agatha Christie well knew – can be used both to harm and heal. Agatha Christie was a great writer for the entertainment industry, crafting well-thought out and ingenious plots that gave and continue to give actors remarkable material for spellbinding performances of intrigue and detection. You can watch some of these films on the outdoor cinema as well lesser known documentary films that portray the street life of Cairo during the 1970s and that remind us in an extraordinary way of the invention and labour of everyday life.
As the Festival Director of IACF with a deep insight into the programming, which works and events are you most excited by?
Erik Satie’s Vexations is a 19 hour composition for solo piano from 1893-4 that is rarely performed but that will be completed on Friday 15th September in its entirety from 7 in the morning led by the Torbay-based composer Hugh Nankivell and guests. It was – and remains - completely ground-breaking. On the same evening (on Agatha Christie’s birthday) there will be a reading of Agatha Christie’s “Endless Night”, that was originally published in 1967. Both works will finish around 2am. I wonder who will stay up, to listen to these strange stories and compositions across time and space. What an amazing thing to think of Torre Abbey as a place where such works are given life and celebrated as part of the cultural repertoire of Torbay.