Witness for the Prosecution directed by Kevin Cruz and played by Cold Theater 7 was staged at the Lionel Wendt from 17-20 November 2022, including the full weekend. Based on a short story Agatha Christie wrote in 1925, the play’s original was staged in 1953 to wide acclaim. Several adaptations gained popularity subsequently, including a Broadway production by Robert Lewis in 1954 and the screenplay by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz in 1957. Being made into a successful film, its popular BBC adaptation featuring Sir Ralph Richardson as Sir Wilfrid Robarts was made in 1982; and is available on YouTube for free streaming.
Witness for the Prosecution is a simple and straightforward story with a typical Agatha Christie twist appended to it. The plot follows a design by Leonard and Romaine Vole – an impressive and charming local lad and his older “foreign” wife – who stage-manage a trial where Vole is accused of murdering an unmarried and rich woman, a Miss French. Having made friends with Leonard, Miss French had left a will bequeathing her considerable estate to the young man just before her death occurred. While the play’s ending has been liberally dramatized over the past seven decades, in Cruz’s production Leonard is acquitted from charges only to reveal that he had an affair with a local girl whom he planned to live with by leaving Romaine behind. In rage, Romaine stabs Leonard to death and Leonard’s solicitor, Sir Wilfrid (who calls Romaine “a most remarkable woman”), expresses intention to defend Romaine at her impending trial. This ending resonates the concluding movement of the script Wilder and Kurnitz developed in 1957, while other variations include the curtain fall soon after Leonard is stabbed (this ending is adapted, for instance, by FAMS Theater Company, Sydney, in a 2005 production which that company has shared on YouTube).
Detailed in the company-grade play ticket as an “amateur production”, Cruz’s adaptation of the play was well-received by the Lionel Wendt-going Colombo. However, the play also presented several glaring “downsides” that demand close analysis and, as such, prompted this short essay. It was unfortunate that the play’s most palpable weakness was brought on by arguably the cast’s most outstanding male player: by the acting of Abbasali Rozais (who played Sir Wilfrid Robarts) who dominated most of the stage. A talent with much promise and versatility, Rozais suffered – and, in turn afflicted the play – in being poorly stage-managed. In the course of the play, this actor came across as an animal who marched a good few paces ahead of his pack, projecting ahead of others and manipulating the playing space in a way that left the others on the side. The better theatrical production is founded on unity and integration where characters blend and bring on an evenness and harmony to the world on stage. The good actor is required to tune one’s self to the general conditions that surround and not play in a vacuum that alienates itself from the rest. The character of Sir Wilfrid being assigned a good three-quarter of the play’s lines did not help matters either, as it resulted in a somewhat painful affair where the cast often resembled a dozen Lilliputians playing around Gulliver. Regarding this curable vice, the director is in the best place to call for a reassessment how his players play.
Colombo’s English theatergoers, for quite some time now, have been universally acknowledged as being sexist-gigglers. The range from bawdy slapstick to dry daddy jokes – both departments, laden with pungent sexist provocations – normally tickle this audience to tears and hysterics (the psychology of which needs to be properly studied – typically, at Colombo University). For instance, the previous week, Indu Dharmasena staged Chaos by SMS, a comedy, at the Bishop’s Auditorium, which had a reference to a “pussy” that recurred for the sum duration of the play. Any normal audience should have been dulled by the abuse of this pun on a woman (in the play) who shared an obsessive relationship with her cat; but, the audience at Bishop’s was tickled from start to last.
In Witness for the Prosecution, there are/were several sections that read as sexist; notably the portrayal of Greta, the young clerk in Sir Wilfrid’s employment. Greta is scripted as a somewhat silly young girl whose most memorable actions on stage lie between sloppy clerical work (for which she is reprimanded) and offers to make tea for the men in the office. In Cruz’s production, Greta’s movements – specially her entrances and exits – were given considerable focus. In a play dominated by male characters, Greta’s exaggerated movements (including several entrances and exits that took the length of the stage and went right in front of the audience) gave the impression of her being somewhat “on show”. The direction for entrance in the “court room scene” also made it inevitable for Romaine, when called to stand witness, but to take (theatrically and literally speaking) a very awkward right-angle after mounting the stage whose purpose – or so it seemed – was to expose to the audience her back. However, staying in line with that character’s historical dramatization, that the dramatist depended on Romaine Vole as a sort of sex object is suggestive in her being dressed in striking colours: always black or red. The play also pandered to the cheap sexist humour of the house – and, quite unnecessarily, too – through the medical specialist (Dr. Wyatt) who was called to the trial: a representation that, for no obvious reason, came across as abnormal and – for the want of a phrase – “exaggeratedly effeminate”.
A key passage towards the play’s end called to attention the demonstration of abuse and woman-beating as an unnecessary spectacle: the scene where, being acquitted and united with his lover, Leonard physically assaults Romaine. This scene was acted with a certain exaggeration that it stood out and registered a dissonance with the rest of the play which is predominantly dialogue-driven. In the assault of the woman, the actor playing Leonard seemed to have been directed to throw Romaine on the floor with much energy and to bash her head on a wooden table. Noticeably, several other contemporary productions had preferred to approach this scene differently and with tact. The FAMS Theater production I referenced earlier, for example, dramatizes Leonard’s attack on Romaine with slight press on the woman’s shoulder (which Romaine uses as a cue for her fall). In the Cold Theater 7 production, whether the “assault scene” was an outcome of a rehearsed thought process, or whether the aim was to merely stage a spectacle needs to be considered. Was this a tactic used to summon shock in the house at Leonard Vole’s dark side finally surfacing?
Post-play talk was dominated by references to the linguistic polyphony on stage. While Sir Wilfrid articulated an English of clipped consonants and curated plosives, Romaine (played by Melanie Bibile) dramatized a theatrically-acceptable German this side of Goethe. Another supporting character, Jane McKenzie, held forth in the witness’ dock in a dialect that complicated her Scottish name with mimicked acoustics alternating between working class Cockney and Downton Abbey-accents of Irish. However, the more relevant question for a theatergoer in 2022 is whether these actors should actually labour their natural anatomy in search of alien accents? Had these actors performed in their original tongue would the performance have been any less elegant? Specially, since the rest of the cast spoke English like Sri Lankans do, did these players really bring an added value to the show by mimicking Europe?
Agatha Christie is a rare appearance in Sri Lanka, leave alone in Colombo. Cold Theater 7’s dramatization of one of Christie’s popular stories-cum-plays is a refreshing choice. The ponder-worthy points raised in this article do not steal from the thunder that is due to the players and the director, Kevin Cruz.
The cast of Witness for the Prosecution directed by Kevin Cruz in November 2022:
Leonard Vole: Taariq Jurangpathy
Romaine Vole: Melanie Bibile
Sir Wilfrid Robarts: Abbasali Rozais
Mr. Myers: Mahesh Senaratne
John Mayehew: Niren Ranasinghe
Janet McKenzie: Dinushka Jayawickrema
Ins. Hearne: Kovindu De Seram
Dr. Wyatt: Yohan Kurera
Greta: Mithara Fonseka
The Justice: Hashen Ratnayake
Clerk of the Court: Harshana Rathnayake
The Policeman: Yusuf Sheriff
Ms. Barton: Amenthi Weerasinghe
(NOTE: This short essay was based on the play’s opening night on 17 November 2022 played to a full house at the Lionel Wendt. The names of the cast are reproduced from a newspaper article credited to Anoushka Jayasuriya of the Sunday Times dated 6 November 2022).