Sitting in the South Bank’s County Hall, with grand architecture everywhere and a statue of Lady Justice looming over the Chamber Courtroom, I felt completely immersed in the legal drama unfolding around me. Is the defendant guilty? I wondered. Will he be hanged for murder?
In a new production of Witness for the Prosecution, Leonard Vole stands accused of the murder of an older woman. A great deal of evidence points towards his guilt, but his personality, as well as the fact he is trusted by the people he calls upon in the legal profession, calls this into doubt in the minds of the audience. The story is awfully complicated, with a series of twisted turns centering on Vole’s relationship with his manipulative, unsympathetic wife.
Jack McMullen, who plays Leonard, puts in a compelling performance. The role calls for unbridled displays of emotion. The actor also has to wear a dubious charm, which is neither distinctly real or superficial. David Yelland is superb as Leonard’s defense lawyer. He conveys someone with a strong intellect and moral compass. His character is perhaps more of a protagonist than the accused, as the tangled plot puts him in a completely trustworthy position.
The play makes full use of the space from the floor to the ceiling. At one point an actor appears in the gallery where members of the public sit. Not every scene is part of the trial though. One is in the less formal setting of a legal practitioner’s office. Another takes place at night-time on the foggy streets of 1920s London.
Whenever a witness is called to the stand, someone calls their name down an outside corridor in a loud booming voice. This creates a feeling of extreme severity, or even doom, as the outcome of the trial could lead to a young mans death. At various intervals, when the threat of death is brought to the fore, frighteningly intense music evokes a sense of panic and foreboding.
The sound of people reacting to the hearing in hushed tones and involuntary gasps is played into the venue throughout. This is indistinguishable from any realtime chatter, adding an extra layer to the illusion of being part of a trial.
The play is spectacularly complex, with more than one major, mind blowing twist. Adapted from a short story by prolific crime author Agatha Christie, it’s a solid, enthralling piece of writing. In particular, the speeches made by the attorneys and Leonard’s other half are wickedly clever, juggling truths and lies in such a way that it’s difficult to tell one from the other. This means the audience are called upon to be astute and to think critically. The jury box is filled with ticket holders too. In a final demolition of the wall between actor and spectator, one of them was called upon to read out the fictitious verdict.
Witness for the Prosecution is a gripping piece of theatre, which will leave you in a state of shock. The nuanced acting and expertly woven narrative conspire to deliver something devastating, that will stay with you for weeks.
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