Young Agatha Miller riding a donkey in the desert. Normal activities in the British colonies
Some of you will know that Agatha Christie was greatly influenced by the Middle East thanks to her second husband Max Mallowan, whom she met during an excavation in modern Syria. But she was also very fond of Egypt, having spent her early 20s in Cairo, dancing at balls with soldiers and living the life of (as often described in her books) a “young bright thing”. Besides partying and dancing, while in Egypt she became very interested in the forgotten and almost forbidden, Pharaoh Akhenaten, husband of the well known Queen Nefertiti and father of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
In 1937 (the same year Death on the Nile was published), she ended up writing a play with Pharaoh Akhenaten and his ideas on changing the religious beliefs of Ancient Egypt at the centre of the action. Due to the great cost of production (the play demanded the incorporation of real animals and scores of young girls dancing half naked on stage) Akhnaton was never staged.
On Wednesday the 10th, accompanied by a few friends and Mike Linane (organiser of Deal Noir, International Crime Fiction Festival taking place on April 2nd in Deal, Kent) we had the privilege to attend a “premiere” of the second act of the play at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology (University College of London). The enactors included archaeologists from the Petrie Museum, performers from the English National Opera (where Philip Glass’ opera, Akhnaten is set to perform in early March) and an Agatha Christie expert.
During the reenactment, we were asked to perform together with the panel, which made the whole experience a lot more fun and interactive. As every early Christie play, Akhnaton is full of wit, dialogues that run smoothly and make the spectators laugh but always without mocking Christie’s own characters or lessening the meaning of the story. It is extremely interesting to see how Christie always managed to fit, even in a setting as grand as Ancient Egypt, the everyday problems, questions, doubts and truths that we live through on a daily basis. This everyday that meant the 1930s is still very easy to identify with in 2016.
We should also mention the very subtle humour, the various sexual innuendos and the evident presence of an homosexual couple that adds a little spice to this work and makes it very enjoyable and incredibly relevant today.
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology has got a wonderful collection and research team and it was just the perfect venue for a very special event like this. Here’s hoping we will soon see Akhnaton on stage, with or without elephants and peacocks marching and strutting about!