Stage Door Review

Witness for the Prosecution

Saturday, May 25, 2024


by Agatha Christie, directed by Alistair Newton

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 26-October 13, 2024

Sir Wilfrid: “The question is whether you were lying then or whether you are lying now”

Witness for the Prosecution is the fifth mystery the Shaw Festival has produced since it revived the traditional mystery slot in 2018 and the fifth play by Agatha Christie it has produced, reinforcing Christie’s position as the most performed female playwright at the Festival. The Shaw Festival cast give a good account of the play, but the direction of Alistair Newton is so peculiar that it seems he can’t decide whether to present the mystery seriously or to parody it.

When I saw a production of the play in London (UK), I provided the following plot summary: “We meet the young man, Leonard Vole, who has been accused of murdering an elderly woman, Emily French. Vole’s solicitor, Mr. Mayhew, tries to calm Leonard and tells him to tell his story to the barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts exactly as he told it to him.

“Vole became friends with Mrs. French when he helped her gather up a stack of parcels she had dropped. Soon he was visiting the lonely Mrs. French on a weekly or sometimes more than weekly basis and helping her with odd chores, playing cards or just chatting. Vole, a self-described ‘drifter’, regards Mrs. French as a kind of aunt.

“The police have a fairly certain time of death for Mrs. French because the elderly woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, returned unexpectedly from her night off and found her employer still bleeding from the head wound that killed her.

“Vole’s alibi for that night is his wife Romaine. Vole met Romaine in Germany where he was stationed during the war. He married her there and brought her with him to England. Vole has never been able to settle down since retuning and has not held a steady job. He is currently unemployed.

“When Vole leaves, Mayhew and Robarts agree that he is a fine young man and that his story is quite believable and Robarts agrees to take on Vole’s defence. They then meet Romaine Vole, who has come to see them. Quite unlike Vole, she is cool and calculating and says that if Leonard said he was with her then she will say so too, thus through her off-hand manner casting a shadow of doubt over Vole’s alibi. To say any more about the swings and roundabouts that Christie has so carefully engineered would destroy the excitement of the play.” I will simply say that Christie keeps the audience in suspense until the very last moment.

The Festival has assembled an excellent cast with Shaw regulars in all the main roles. The problem comes from odd choices that director Alistair Newton and his design team make. The first odd choice is to triple underscore the fact that Romaine Vole is the most important character. The entire production is designed to flaunt this in our eyes as if we were unable to understand it from the dialogue. Set designer Karyn McCallum and costume designer Judith Bowden, no doubt at Newton’s insistence, created a world on stage that is entirely in black, white and grey – rather as if they were trying to make the look on stage match the black-and-white palette of the famous 1958 movie based on the play directed by Billy Wilder.

The one, intentionally jarring note is that Mrs. Vole is the only character whose costume is in colour. She wears the same cut of costume for each of her three appearances – first in green, then in yellow, then in red. The effect is to have the character visually stand out against the monochrome background. But, of course, Marla McLean who plays Mrs. Vole, could make the character stand out through her acting ability alone without this unwelcome visual assistance. In alchemy green represents the base matter that the alchemist wants to transmute, while yellow (citrinitas) and red (rubedo) represent the final two stages of the transmutation. If this is what has inspired Newton virtually no one will understand the reference and even if they do, they won’t see how the change from base matter to gold is in any way relevant to Mrs. Vole, unless, simplistically, you think her the hero of the play.

Further to this nonsense, Bowden has Mrs. Vole wear a satin skirt suit with matching hat and has her use a long cigarette holder making her look like the wealthiest, most elegant figure in the play. This contradicts everything in the text about Mr. and Mrs. Vole who barely have enough to live on. Even the legendary designer Edith Head did not try to make Marlene Dietrich as Mrs. Vole look this glamorous. Bowden’s costume makes Mrs. Vole look like the archetypal femme fatale, whereas Christie presents her in a much more ambiguous light.

Less important but still an error, Bowden has place Leonard Vole in a spiffy three-piece suit even though the text specifies that he is wearing an ill-fitting suit, i.e., one that he had probably borrowed since he is unemployed and has never had a white-collar job. Meanwhile, Bowden has costumed the two policemen who come for Vole in Act 1 in slouch hays and trench coats that makes them look like clichés of spies more than police and raises a laugh from the audience.

Newton has sanctioned these errors and clichés in costuming because he intentionally wants to present Christie’s play as superficial only to reveal at the end that it is not. He reinforces this strange procedure by his use of Lyon Smith’s sound cues. Whenever there is a tense moment or a revelation, Newton has Smith suddenly play a sound cue from the 1958 film. Matty Malneck’s music may suit a motion picture, but its sudden appearance in a play at time of stress reduces the action literally to melodrama. The uncomfortable feeling Newton’s direction gives is that he is imposing clichés on Christie’s play in order to ridicule it in which case he should not have accepted the directing assignment.

Karyn McCallum’s sets are not so much tools of parody as ill-considered. The office of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Leonard Vole’s lawyer, features a fireplace so shallow that people can walk behind it. If Newton did not allow passage behind it, it would not look so artificial. In the courtroom, McCallum perversely has placed the pews for the barristers upstage at a right angle to the stage opening. This means that more than half the audience on house right will not be able to see the faces of the barristers during the trial and thus their reactions of anger and surprise which would help make the trial livelier. Newton’s notion is that the audience is the jury, but McCallum has placed the dock for the accused directly facing away from the audience so that we never see Leonard Vole’s face unless he happens to lean to one side to show us a profile.

The strange choices that Newton has encouraged in set, costuming and sound do not help the actors. Instead, they create an environment that the actors have to work against. Most encumbered with these design choices is Marla McLean as Romaine Vole. Over 17 seasons McLean has repeatedly proven what a fine actor she is, yet here she is trapped in a concept that gives her little room to manoeuvre. Romaine Vole is a mysterious figure not because she is dressed like a femme fatale but because her replies to questions in Act 1 are so ambiguous. McLean’s costuming makes her responses sound like sheer willfulness, when, in fact, they should hint at some inner turmoil that Mrs. Vole is attempting to hide. We hear that Mrs. Vole had been an actor before coming to England. This fact should give McLean the rich opportunity of making us wonder when her character is or is not acting for the benefit of her auditors. Unfortunately, Newton’s direction does all it can to present McLean’s character as an untrustworthy stereotype.

Leonard Vole is also not as simple as Newton would have it appear. The best performance of this role should portray Leonard as naïve but should also give his words an undertone of sullenness. Andrew Lawrie coneys Vole’s earnest, passionate nature, but he should suggest that there is more to the character than that.

Patrick Galligan and Graeme Somerville are well matched as the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution – Galligan well-spoken and concerned, Somerville probing and egocentric. Christie shows the two are not perfect through their xenophobic and misogynist remarks that the action proves to be ill-founded. Monica Parks does much to bring out the humour of Emily French’s outraged Scottish housekeeper Janet MacKenzie, and Fiona Byrne, working with nothing, manages to make Sir Wilfrid’s secretary Greta a memorable comic character.

In a final insult to the actors, Newton does not finish the play with the actors’ speeches but with an animation of the statue of Justice that has been looming over the courtroom. The animation with total lack of subtlety reveals Newton’s own special interpretation of the play. Again, rather than leaving us with the mixed emotions as Christie does, Newton Wants his own point of view to dominate everything. Witness for the Prosecution can be an extraordinarily exciting play as evidenced by the production that has been playing in London (UK) since October 2017. Not only does the London County Hall provide the perfect site-specific location, but director Lucy Bailey has encouraged complex, well-rounded performances from all the major players. The Shaw’s production is serviceable but greater attention to the text would make it much more involving and much more enjoyable.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Marla McLean as Romaine Vole with Andrew Lawrie as Leonard Vole (in box), Shawn Wright as Mr. Justice Wainwright and Patrick Galligan as Sir Wilfrid Robarts (standing); Andrew Lawrie as Leonard Vole (in box), Monica Parks as Janet MacKenzie, Ryann Mayers as Clerk of the Court, Shawn Wright as Mr. Justice Wainwright and Patrick Galligan as Sir Wilfrid Robarts; Marla McLean as Romaine Vole; Andrew Lawrie as Leonard Vole with Shawn Wright as Mr. Justice Wainwright and Ryann Mayers as Clerk of the Court in background. © 2024 Emily Cooper.

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