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Ngaio Marsh

Light Thickens


For James Laurenson, who played The Thane

and for Helen Thomas (Holmes), who was his Lady, in the third production of the play

by The Canterbury University Players.


Peregrine Jay — Director, Dolphin Theatre

Emily Jay — His wife

Crispin, Robin, Richard — Their sons

Annie — Their cook

Jeremy Jones — Designer, Dolphin Theatre

Winter Meyer — Dolphin business manager

Mrs. Abrams — Secretary

Bob Masters — Stage manager

Charlie — Assistant stage manager

Ernie James — Property Master

Nanny — Miss Mannering’s dresser

Mrs. Smith — Mother of William

Lighting manager

Stage-door keeper



Roderick Alleyn — Chief Superintendent

Fox — Detective Inspector

Thompson — Detective Sergeant

Bailey — Detective Sergeant

Sir James Curtis — Pathologist

Chapter 1


Peregrine Jay heard the stage door at the Dolphin open and shut and the sound of voices. The scene and costume designer and the lighting manager came through to the open stage. They wheeled out three specially built racks, unrolled their drawings, and pinned them up.

They were stunning. A permanent central rough stone stairway curved up to Duncan’s chamber. Two turntables articulated with this to represent, on the right, the outer facade of Inverness Castle or the inner courtyard, and on the left, a high stone platform with a gallows and a dangling rag-covered skeleton, or, turned, another wall of the courtyard. The central wall was a dull red arras above the stairway, open to the sky.

The lighting manager showed a dozen big drawings of the various sets with the startling changes brought about by his craft. One of these was quite lovely: an opulent evening in front of the castle with the setting sun bathing everything in splendor. One felt the air to be calm, gentle, and full of the sound of wings. A heavenly evening. And then, next to it, the same scene with the enormous doors opened, a dark interior, torches, a piper, and the Lady in scarlet coming to welcome the fated visitor.

“Jeremy,” Peregrine said, “you’ve done us proud.”


“It’s so right! It’s so bloody right. Here! Let’s up with the curtain. Jeremy?”

The designer went offstage and pressed a button. With a long-drawn-out sigh the curtain rose. The shrouded house waited.

“Light them, Jeremy! Blackout and lights on them. Can you?”

“It won’t be perfect but I’ll try.”

“Just for the hell of it, Jeremy.”

Jeremy laughed, moved the racks, and went to the lights console.

Peregrine walked through a pass-door to the front-of-house. Presently there was a total blackout, and then, after a pause, the drawings were suddenly there, alive in the midst of nothing and looking splendid.

“Only approximate, of course,” Jeremy said in the dark.

“Let’s keep this for the cast to see. They’re due now.”

“You don’t want to start them off with broken legs, do you?” asked the lighting manager.

There was an awkward pause.

“Well — no. Put on the light in the passage,” said Peregrine in a voice that was a shade too offhand. “No,” he shouted. “Bring down the curtain again, Jeremy. We’ll do it properly.”

The stage door was opened and more voices were heard, two women’s and a man’s. They came in exclaiming at the dark.

“All right, all right,” Peregrine called out cheerfully. “Stay where you are. Lights, Jeremy, would you? Just while people are coming in. Thank you. Come down in front, everybody. Watch how you go. Splendid.”

They came down. Margaret Mannering first, complaining about the stairs, in her wonderful warm voice with little breaks of laughter, saying she knew she was unfashionably punctual. Peregrine hurried to meet her.

“Maggie, darling! It’s all meant to start us off with a bang, but I do apologize. No more steps. Here we are. Sit down in the front row. Nina! Are you all right? Come and sit down, love. Bruce! Welcome, indeed. I’m so glad you managed to fit us in with television.”

I’m putting it on a bit thick, he thought. Nerves! Here they all come. Steady now.

They arrived singly and in pairs, having met at the door. They greeted Peregrine and each other extravagantly or facetiously, and all of them asked why they were sitting in front and not onstage or in the rehearsal room. Peregrine kept count of heads. When they got to seventeen and then to nineteen he knew they were waiting for only one: the Thane.

He began again, counting them off. Simon Morten, Macduff. A magnificent figure, six feet two. Dark. Black eyes with a glitter, thick black hair that sprang in short-clipped curls from his skull. A smooth physique not yet running to fat and a wonderful voice. Almost too good to be true. Bruce Barrabell, the Banquo. Slight. Five feet ten inches tall. Fair to sandy hair. Beautiful voice. And the King? Almost automatic casting — he’d played every Shakespearian king in the canon except Lear and Claudius, and played them all well if a little less than perfectly. The great thing about him was his royalty. He was more royal than any of the remaining crowned heads of Europe and his name actually was King: Norman King. The Malcolm was, in real life, his son — a young man of nineteen — and the relationship was striking.

There was the Lennox, sardonic man. Nina Gaythorne, the Lady Macduff, who was talking very earnestly with the Doctor. And I don’t mind betting it’s about superstition, thought Peregrine uneasily. He looked at his watch. Twenty minutes late, he thought. I’ve half a mind to start without him, so I have.

A loud and lovely voice and the bang of the stage door.

Peregrine hurried through the pass-door and up onto the stage.

“Dougal, my dear fellow, welcome,” he shouted.

“But I’m so sorry, dear boy. I’m afraid I’m a fraction late. Where is everybody?”

“In front. I’m not having a reading.”


“No. A few words about the play. The working drawings, and then away we go.”


“Come through. This way. Here we go.”

Peregrine led the way. “The Thane, everybody,” he announced.

It gave Sir Dougal Macdougal an entrance. He stood for a moment on the steps into the front-of-house, an apologetic grin transforming his face. Such a nice chap, he seemed to be saying, no upstage nonsense about him. Everybody loves everybody. Yes. He saw Margaret Mannering. Delight! Acknowledgment! Outstretched arms and a quick advance. “Maggie! My dear! How too lovely!” Kissing of hands and both cheeks. Everybody felt as if the central heating had been turned up another five points. Suddenly they all began talking.

Peregrine stood with his back to the curtain, facing the company with whom he was about to take a journey. Always it felt like this. They had come aboard: they were about to take on other identities. In doing this something would happen to them alclass="underline" new ingredients would be tried, accepted, or denied. Alongside them were the characters they must assume. They would come closer and if the casting was accurate, slide together. For the time they were onstage they would be one. So he held. And when the voyage was over they would all be again, as Peregrine thought, a little bit different.

He began talking to them.

“I’m not starting with a reading,” he said. “Readings are okay as far as they go for the major roles, but bit-parts are bit-parts and as far as the Gentlewoman and the Doctor are concerned, once they arrive they are bloody important, but their zeal won’t be set on fire by sitting around waiting for a couple of hours for their entrance.

“Instead, I’m going to invite you to take a hard look at this play and then get on with it. It’s short and it’s faulty. That is to say, it’s full of errors that crept into whatever script was handed to the printers. Shakespeare didn’t write the silly Hecate bits so out she comes. It’s compact and drives quickly to its end. It’s remorseless. I’ve directed it, in other theatres, twice — each time, I may say, successfully and without any signs of bad luck — so I don’t believe in the bad-luck stories associated with it and I hope none of you do either. Or if you do, you’ll keep your ideas to yourselves. ”