by Lynn on April 28, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

NOTE: In my review of Witness for the Prosecution I stated that director Alistair Newton went through the Shaw’s Neil Munro Intern Directors project last year. In fact he did the program in 2014, and was the assistant director to Peter Hinton for the production of Alice in Wonderland in 2015. While Witness for the Prosecution is his first Shaw production, he has directed several productions elsewhere since 2014. Apologies for the misinformation which is now corrected in the review.

Live and in person at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Playing until Oct. 13, 2024.

Written by Agatha Christie

Directed by Alistair Newton

Set and projections by Karyn McCallum

Costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Siobhán Sleath

Original music and sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Kristopher Bowman

Fiona Byrne

Patrick Galligan

Martin Happer

Andrew Lawrie

Lynn Laywine

Lawrence Libor

Marla McLean

Cheryl Mullings

Ryann Meyers

Monica Parks

Graeme Somerville

Shawn Wright

Director Alistair Newton’s production of Witness for the Prosecution is part film noir, part send up, part over-the-top melodrama, that it is a jumble of styles resulting in a concept that does a disservice to the play.

The Story. I won’t talk of the film—I don’t mix the two—this is the play. Leonard Vole has come to the offices of Sir Wilfred Robarts QC (Queen’s Counsel—senior barrister) for legal advice. He thinks he might be charged with the murder of Emily French, a woman he helped and who in turn befriended him. He helped her when she dropped some packages while crossing Oxford Street in London and she was so grateful that a friendship resulted. He would visit her.  He considered her like an old aunt. We find out this old woman was 56. Let us all suck air at that.  She also trusted Leonard to advise her on her business dealings., so he knew she had money. In any case Leonard went to visit her one evening and all was good. He went home to his wife Romaine and was there the rest of the evening. But then he read in the paper that Ms. French was murdered and he, Leonard, thought he might be suspected of being the killer, but he assured Sir Wilfred that he wasn’t. So, there is the premise.

There are complications: Leonard is poor and unemployed. He’s married to a woman described with contempt by Sir Wilfred as “a foreigner” and he figures the jury will not trust her. And Ms French had done a new will and left everything to Leonard.  So Leonard is charged with murder. Sir Wilfred takes the case. The trial involves various witnesses, and the star one seems to be Leonard’s wife Romaine Vole who is originally from Germany. She is cool, calm and inscrutable. Sir Wilfred does not trust her—he has a problem with all women it seems….”Damned women he says.”

The Production. Alistair Newton went through the Neil Munro Intern Director’s Program at the Shaw in 2014, and he was the assistant director to Peter Hinton on the Shaw’s production of Alice in Wonderland in 2016. Alistair Newton has directed productions elsewhere and now with Witness for the Prosecution he is directing his own Shaw production.

Alistair Newton has fashioned Witness for the Prosecution as a film noir creation with Lyon Smith’s moody music and sound to accentuate the obvious. The colour scheme of Karyn McCallum’s set and projections and Judith Bowden’s costumes are shades of blacks, greys and muted whites. The only character in a vibrant colour is Romaine Vole (Marla McLean). She arrives in either a form fitting yellowish form-fitting ensemble, complete with hat/fascinator that looks like birds taking flight or the same design in red/scarlet. She initially stands in a cone of white light (Siobhán Sleath), posing to the audience. Any documents associated with her are in the same shade as her costume and the document is also illuminated to accentuate the colour. Marla McLean plays Romaine Vole with deliberate mystery and insouciance. She usually conveys a look of disdain. She is a match for the legal minds in the case. Direction in neon in case we didn’t get the point.

Ok, but then Alistair Newton sends up other characters that contradicts the sense of film noir. Two detectives, Martin Happer and Lawrence Libor, look like they wandered in from some over done American detective film (hats at an angle hiding their faces, sauntering with arrogance to the accompaniment of moody music).

Or Alistair Newton makes the women seem cheezy and sexualized. Greta the secretary, played with deliberate allure by Fiona Byrne, walks with a slow, exaggerated model-walk. Women witnesses in court are coy with the jury and straighten their skirts and sashay to the witness box even if playing an expert witness who should know about procedure and needs to be taken seriously by the jury. Director Alistair Newton is laying on the laughs with a shovel, never mind a trowel.

But then Patrick Galligan plays Sir Wilfred with precision, elegance and commitment. This is not a sendup. Kristopher Bowman as Mr. Mayhew, also a legal mind, is similarly, serious, and committed. As Leonard Vole, Andrew Lawrie is a mix of innocence and almost naïve trusting. He believes in others to defend him. He is concerned as well with his terrible predicament. It’s a terrific performance.

I can appreciate a director who wants to instill his/her interpretation on a script and produce a lively production. But when it is a muddle of genres, seems to distort the story or sends it up then I’m confused, and I’m not alone. Alistair Newton could have been revolutionary and just directed the play without the distorting ‘interpretation’. Now that would be novel.

Comment. Is Agatha Christie commenting on the British attitude with these racist and sexist commenters or was she guilty of them herself? I think she’s commenting on the British upper classes like Sir Wilfred. Of course, Ms. Christie had a brilliant creation in Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who is always receiving racist comments. And I would think that Ms. Christie would be knowing about how women were perceived in her world. I think she’s making those pointed comments about the upper classes.

That said, Ms. Christie’s work is getting the ‘hoover treatment’ along with Roald Dahl, in which her work is being sanitized with “questionable” comments and language being removed.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Plays until Oct. 13, 2024.

Running time: almost three hours (2 intermissions)

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Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.