If you’ve ever been sarcastically called “Sherlock” after making a blindingly obvious observation, take heart. Sure, you’re being insulted, but you’re also part of the legacy of one of history’s greatest characters. Author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective with the stunning intellect and the astounding powers of observation, is still at the forefront of pop culture more than 130 years after his first literary appearance, along with his slightly less observant colleague Dr. John Watson.
If you need proof, look no further than two Sherlock Holmes-related events happening in Columbia. One is a massive, interactive exhibit at the South Carolina State Museum called The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes. The other is Town Theatre’s production of writer Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a spoof that parodies one of Holmes’ most read adventures.
The State Museum’s exhibit, which opened earlier this month, is massive in scope. It’s the result of a collaboration between two different exhibition-development groups, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate and two other museums, and the idea is to fully immerse people into Holmes’ world.
Guests will be able to visit Holmes’ fictional sitting room and view items from Conan Doyle’s actual study. They’ll see various examples of the detective’s massive presence in pop culture, from card games, comics and magazines to radio scripts, movie and television show props and costumes. They’ll be able to learn about the scientific crime-solving methods used by Holmes and real-life investigators of his era.
And perhaps most intriguingly, they’ll have the chance to be Sherlock Holmes, taking a book full of clues and trying to solve a murder mystery, written exclusively for the exhibit by Conan Doyle’s biographer, Daniel Stashower.
Geoffrey Curley, whose consulting company spearheaded the development of the exhibit, says that Conan Doyle’s depth of knowledge and larger-than-life Sherlock Holmes character deserved a large-scale effort.
“The writings of Conan Doyle really have a wide breadth of content,” he offers. “So we’re looking at literature. We’re looking at technology. We’re looking at history, science and of course contemporary forensic science, and how they all blend together. The exhibit really has a lot of story-driven content to it, and a lot of theatricality to it.”
Curley says that the exhibit is meant to educate people not just about the size of Holmes’ influence on modern culture, but about the reasons behind it.
“The impact of Sherlock Holmes is hard to wrap your mind around,” he posits. “So we wanted to make sure that that we embraced the idea that Sherlock is everywhere, but also to get people to understand where this came from. And it didn’t come from nowhere. Conan Doyle was impacted by his experiences. He was a doctor studying medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, at a time when Edinburgh was the center of medical innovation. So there were all these new Innovations happening.”
“He was also impacted by what was happening in newspaper publications,” Curley continues, “and the way that you could have information at your fingertips. That was all part of Sherlock Holmes, this character that could evaluate this world and understand the difference between what’s fact and what’s fiction by using the scientific method, observation and logic to understand what is around us.”
The Town Theatre’s take on Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and the mysteries they solved is considerably more light-hearted than the State Museum’s, but no less entertaining.
In its production of Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, Holmes (played by Nathan Dawson) and Watson (played by Bill DeWitt) are just as passionate about pursuing the truth as ever. But the plot pokes fun at their poker-faced intensity and moves at a frenzied pace, placing the duo at the center of a farcical hurricane in which three other actors perform dozens of different characters around them, sometimes switching roles (and costumes) mid-scene.
“It’s a spoof on Sherlock Holmes’ most popular story,” says director Marybeth Berry. “It’s about the journey of Sherlock and Watson, and their search for this inhuman hound that’s been terrorizing people in the area. There are various people from the town they meet, and three of the actors play over 40 different roles. It’s got all of the elements of the typical Sherlock and Watson banter, but it has a Monty Python kind of feel to it.”
Berry says that the general public’s familiarity with Holmes means that some of the cast’s work is done before anyone even sees the show, and that that makes it easier to spoof the character.
“It helps to have someone who is iconic so that we automatically have these expectations,” she says. “Everybody has in their head who they think Sherlock is. People come in with that. So for us there are certain things between Sherlock and Watson that are a given, from the costumes to how they carry themselves to how they interact. That’s very important.
“I don’t think a character has to be iconic to be spoofed,” she adds, “but it allows you to take potshots at the character and see what happens.”
What: The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes
Where: South Carolina State Museum, 301 Gervais St.
More: 803-898-4921, scmuseum.org
What: Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
Where:Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
When: Through Feb. 2
More: 803-799-2510, towntheatre.com