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Arts review: Highs and lows in Shaw’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’
From left: Andrew Lawrie as Leonard Vole, Marla McLean as Romaine Vole, Patrick Galligan as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, QC, with the cast of Agatha Christie’s "Witness for the Prosecution." EMILY COOPER

Royal George Theatre, 2 hours 50 minutes, with two intermissions. Ends Oct. 13. Writer: Agatha Christie. Director: Alistair Newton


“When truth is clearly evident, it speaks for itself.”

Agatha Christie, the world’s best-selling novelist and Queen of Crime, leads us to seek the truth in a noir genre courtroom drama of justice, dislocation, love and betrayal.

Christie adapted “Witness for the Prosecution” for the stage from her 1925 short story “Traitor’s Hands.”

The play’s convoluted plot of unexpected twists and turns opened to great acclaim in London in 1953, a year buoyed by the young Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

The setting of the play is 1950s post-war, grey London. Britain is struggling with economic recovery. Men, raised to Empire, face an Empire gone. Women, major home-front players in war rooms and factories, are thrust back to domesticity and menial jobs. 

Foreigners are viewed with suspicion. Fear of spies and Communism have been heightened by the treacherous Cambridge Five betrayals to the Soviet Union. The curtain of the Cold War has descended.

Leonard Vole, an affable, unemployed and broke young man of 27 has befriended a wealthy, “elderly” woman of 56. He is accused of her murder. Sensationalist newspapers headline that he is the beneficiary of her new will. He claims he is innocent.

The dead woman’s faithful housekeeper of 20 years dislikes Vole’s opportunistic influence on her romantically susceptible employer. She believes he is guilty. To others, he appears far too nice to have done it.  

His only witness and alibi is his German wife, Romaine Vole.  Will she be the supportive, loving wife he expects her to be? Is she even who she claims to be? 

Chiaroscuro lighting and moody, smooth jazz perfect for foggy nights set the stage for 1940s noir influenced by German Expressionism and Hollywood’s film noir crime classics: “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity” and Billy Wilder’s classic “Witness for the Prosecution,” starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power.

The play opens in the Chambers of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Q.C., the famed criminal lawyer, who returns from court and meets Leonard Vole. Interesting choice of name by Christie.  

A vole is a rodent, not a rat, not a mouse. Ambiguous. Sir Wilfrid finds Vole a naive, yet shrewd, boy and decides to defend him.

His next visitor is Romaine Vole. As an outspoken misogynist, he expects her to be hysterical, weepy, irrational, requiring his patronizing advice that everything will be all right.  

He is nonplussed when a femme fatale wielding a cigarette holder slowly sashays in. Her tight skirt restricts movement giving her a Marilyn Monroe wiggle and a calculated audience giggle.

There is immediate dislike and distrust between them. Her demeanor is cold, controlled, inscrutable. In a voice devoid of emotion, she will provide the alibi her husband needs.

Sir Wilfrid believes Leonard Vole is blinded by love and that a jury will not believe a wife, especially a foreigner, because they lie. 

Once in the Old Bailey courtroom, Sir Wilfrid (Patrick Galligan) and the Crown prosecutor, Mr. Myers, Q.C. (Graeme Somerville) energetically joust and parry in the gamesmanship of the trial.  

The confines of the Royal George stage limit bench, dock and seating yet effectively serve to vertically and horizontally encage the players in place as if bound within rules and regulations. But this staging allows for errors.  

Lawyers for the defence and prosecution are combatants. They do not sit shoulder to shoulder. They are seated physically apart with their assisting lawyers. 

The accused, Leonard Vole (Andrew Lawrie) has his back to us in his box, so his outbursts, facial expressions and body language are reduced or lost to view. 

Once in the witness box, the Vole-hating housekeeper (Monica Parks) races through her lines with a Scottish accent of such rapidity that coherence and authenticity are lost.  

The mysterious blond and dishevelled woman (Lynn Laywine), who brings evidence reversing the direction of the case is also not clearly audible. She spews her Cockney fury and exposes her revenge scar with her back to us. Turning points lost again.

The predominance of black, white and grey staging has given costume designer Judith Bowden the opportunity for pops of colour in the fitted satin suits of Romaine. Her designs adhere to the 1950s as indicators of time but not of the characters as scripted. 

The vibrant-coloured satin fitted suits of Romaine (Marla McLean) suggest a fashionable end to wartime austerity and give a nod to the women in Ernst Kirchner’s painting, “Berlin Street Scene 1913.”  

She wears de rigueur matching accessories: hat, gloves, handbag, stilettos and brandishes her very long cigarette holder as a distancing weapon. This is not a hard-up woman living in a tiny flat above a shop at Euston Station with an unemployed husband.

McLean’s rigidity projects extreme discomfort from a too-tight corset or direction to play her character externally. There is no suggestion that this is a woman of depth and damage from her lived experience of wartime destruction and rape in Russian-occupied Germany.  

Leonard Vole’s spiffy men’s casual Gab jacket and slacks are not on for a working-class lad hoping to convince an established lawyer to represent him. He would wear a suit.  

 Alistair Newton’s direction is short on Wilder’s wit of the 1957 film and the nuanced British humour of the 1982 made-for-TV version. The laughs here are comedic big and exaggerated.

When the detective bounds on stage, he is not English, low-key, conservative. He is a swaggering, American gumshoe in a broad-brimmed fedora pulled down over one eye. His long, full coat with big shoulders swirls about him.  

He is a bizarre combination of a zoot suiter, a hard boiled Weegee detective and a flapping attempt at Colombo. Whatever he is, he got a big laugh from the audience.

Will justice be served in this “Witness for the Prosecution”? 

The blindfold of Lady Justice is a symbol of unbiased fairness to all who come before her. Her scales of judgment must be balanced, impartial. Her sword is symbolic of the weight of punishment and its power over life and death.

Agatha Christie has written about love, love as a double-edge sword. When you love, you give the other part of yourself. You become vulnerable. 

Anger and revenge are double-edged swords. Truth is a double-edged sword. It enlightens, educates and empowers. It also deceives, distorts and destroys. 

We are the jury. The truth will out. 

Penny-Lynn Cookson is an arts and culture historian, writer and lecturer living in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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