TO WATCH or not to watch the 1957 Billy Wilder film – that was the question for the team behind Canberra REP’s new production of of Agatha Christie’s “Witness For The Prosecution.”
Director Aarne Neeme was one who didn’t watch the movie that featured celebrated actors Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich in roles to die for.
Patrick Gallagher, playing the plum role of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, QC, has watched it though and is quick to point out that some of the characters in the film, like Sir Wilfred’s nurse, are not in the play, where the brilliant barrister is hale and hearty.
On the other hand, Sir Wilfrid’s intellectual arrogance is still there. And Gallagher particularly liked the line when he tells a colleague, “it gives me great delight to beat anyone.” In other words, as he admits to his client Leonard Vole, he is not concerned with guilt or innocence but with winning.
Emma Wood, who gets to play the enigmatic Romaine (in the movie she’s called Christine) didn’t wan to watch the film, saying “there is no point in copying.” Wood prefers to see the play as a psychological thriller rather than a courtroom drama, although the set, one of the most substantial seen on the Theatre 3 stage for some time, suggests that courtroom drama is central to the action.
In Wood’s view, Agatha Christie was a progressive thinker when it came to women and one of the exciting things in the play for anyone playing Romaine (who is not on the stage a lot but is always memorable) is her “psychological duel” with Sir Wilfrid. Wood says that Romaine uses the jury’s suspicion of her as a foreigner (the play was hardly written for a multicultural world) to achieve her own ends—“it’s there in the script”.
To Neeme as director one of the fascinating things in working on this play has been the discovery of Agatha Christie as a person who broke boundaries for women. To him the play is closer to tragedy (for Romaine) than to melodrama.
It particularly interested him to find that Christie wrote it as a short story a year before separating from her first husband and around about the same time as she famously went missing.
“What ever happened to her affected her deeply,” Neeme says, also noting a personal connection in the fact that Romaine at 35 is the same age as Christie when she wrote the story.
“Witness for the Prosecution” for Canberra REP. At Theatre 3, June 16 –July 2, bookings to canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.