Witness For The Prosecution is as much an immersive and investigative experience for the audience as it is a dramatic and twisting play. Based on Agatha Christie’s short story, Traitor’s Hands, later altered for the stage by Christie herself, the plot predominantly centres around a murder trial. This production from the Eleanor Lloyd and Rebecca Stafford Production houses flourishes the original story with a striking use of visuals and lighting that suit it well to a contemporary audience.
Now in its second year, the production’s base in the Council Chambers at London’s County Hall provide novelty as well as authenticity that accentuates the play’s judicial plot. Upon arrival we are met with cast members roaming the hall as solicitors and policemen. These are the same characters who call witnesses, guard the prisoner and patrol the court during the trial; captivating us in the period and legal setting. This is furthered by the County Hall’s Edwardian Baroque architecture that immediately recalls the locations from many of Christie’s other stories, and fans such as myself feel as though we have stepped into a familiar episode of Poirot. However, it is in the Council Chamber specifically where the performance takes place. The Chamber’s layout has barely changed since it was used as the main debating hall for the London County Council, thus retaining much of its original detailing that makes it indistinguishable from a genuine courtroom. These include a witness box, judges and jury box.
Photo Credit: Sheila Burnett
The jury box is of particular importance to the audience, as those who have purchased seats there directly take part in the play. Acting as jurors, they decide based on the evidence provided throughout the play whether Leonard Vole is guilty of murdering Emily French. I will hold myself from providing any more evidence or clues, as the play is appreciated most when you pay attention to small details and draw conclusions for yourself. But I will say this: nothing the characters say is without purpose and each line is significant to another point in the trial. I found myself paying close attention to smalls cues from the actors, which I suspected may hint to possible contradictions in testimonies and the story as a whole. Audience members need to be paying attention, but dedication throughout is rewarded with a climatic ending that is typically Christie-esque.
Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz
This visual and audio work seem subtle but have a conclusive effect in supplanting the audience in different settings and emphasising tension and drama. While transporting us to areas outside of the courtroom, the audience sits in darkness, which is compared to during the trial, where the lighting is slightly brighter, casting us as members of the public gallery. At times when Vole (Daniel Solbe) is screaming and yelling to a courtroom full of characters who are seemingly removed from the world, staring at him blankly, the sound crescendos before crashing down sending the stage into darkness in a jarring fashion. Solbe portrays a visceral desperation through forced and contorted expressions and vocalisations, which are as uncomfortable to us as they must be to make. These moments trigger beams of light which heighten intrigue and tension. They bathe Vole in light whenever he is put on the spot or finds himself struggling to answer questions. The lights glare down on him from an image of the Old Bailey’s famous Lady of Justice statue positioned high above the courtroom, signifying the presence of law in a celestial manner. Similarly, in the abstract opening where we see Vole hanged, the trapdoors beneath him emit a smoke and light as though they were the doors to hell itself. This religious imagery, though subtle, possesses a symmetry with the courtroom setting that emphasises the judgemental aspect of the play.
Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Despite some of the characters’ declarations that the British judicial system is the best in the world, the final outcome of the play is a critique of its flawed and naïve methods. The charismatic Sir Wilfrid (Jasper Britton), a barrister in the court, delivers some of the play’s most engaging and powerful dialogue, endearing the audience with his wit and eloquent majesty as he dominates the courtroom. Yet, despite seeming all knowing and unwavering, he is brought down morally and physically at the end of the play by the way others have manipulated the nature of the trial for their own gain. Deciding for yourself, based on the evidence provided, whether or not Vole is guilty, absorbs you into this performance where no detail is insignificant and Christie makes sure to have the last word.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford