Today’s post is one very close to my own heart. I was a criminal barrister for many years on the London circuit, appearing in the Crown Court and the Old Bailey regularly. Witness for the Prosecution, of course, focuses on a court case and the characters surrounding it. The lawyers play a key role along with the witnesses. It was also, as Agatha Christie herself said, ‘one of my plays that I liked best myself.’
It began life as a short story called Traitor’s Hands in 1925. Agatha Christie herself adapted it as a play which opened in 1953 where, although the central idea is the same, there are some marked differences, the main one being that the defence barrister’s role is enormously enhanced. He becomes one of the central figures of the play as his intellect is set against that of the witness Christine (Romaine as she was in the original story). It is a battle of wits between them as Sir Wilfrid Robarts defends Leonard Vole on a murder charge. He is undoubtedly talented counsel and the defender of the lost cause. But the question is, will his arrogant belief in his own talents in court, actually wrong foot him and in fact be used to someone else’s advantage? Obviously, as with all my other posts I try quite hard not to include too many spoilers. But this is one of Agatha Christie’s greatest reveals. The conclusion is so shockingly clever that I urge you to seek out one of the many wonderful versions before reading any further. As the poster to the 1957 film said, ‘You’ll talk about it! But please don’t tell the ending.’ There is even an announcement at the end of the film reminding the audience of this again.
I adore the cut and thrust of the courtroom and, of course, this central question – will the arrogant, self-belief of defence counsel ultimately blind him? Can it be turned against him if he doesn’t realise there might be someone cleverer and more wily than himself? He’s known as the the fox but will his actual strength be his downfall? I love this question as it was one that was on display in various guises most days in court. Is your own perception of the case, your own will to win, the guiding factor that obscures everything else? I was always very much of the mind that I was not there to judge, I was there to defend to the very best of my ability but this play takes it further into the world of judgement and personal belief. I was often asked the question, ‘How can you possibly defend someone you know is guilty?’ The truth is, you do not know. You never know. Here, Sir Wilfrid seeks constantly to question that and convince himself, sometimes through the very unusual trick of using his monocle to blind the person he is questioning, of the defendant’s innocence and when a witness is lying. This is a very dangerous route. Your own beliefs are or should be irrelevant. Sir Wilfrid merges his own convictions with the act of defending Leonard Vole. He pays a visit to someone who holds devastating evidence and pays them for the letters that will sway the entire case. He becomes part of the case. At the end, when he witnesses a murder in the courtroom itself, we are led to believe he will then go on to defend the accused even though he was there for the actual act.
There are, of course, quite a few areas where the play deviates somewhat from our criminal procedure laws as they stand nowadays. The primary device of the play is, of course, now defunct – the rule of Double Jeopardy (a person could not at that time be tried for murder twice if they had been acquitted). Also, disclosure laws are thankfully quite different today so there are no final, devastating prosecution witnesses called whom the defence were completely unaware of. They cannot either produce unseen evidence of marriage certificates that prove they are not the spouse of the defendant! It is definitely a piece of fiction that must be seen as written for its time. There is of course the overriding fact that if Sir Wilfrid loses, the defendant will hang. Thankfully, I never had this to contend with. Nonetheless, the play does not suffer for any of these anachronisms, even now, and the number of remarkably wonderful productions are testament to that.
One of the very best versions I’ve seen is in fact the theatre production at County Hall in London. This is utterly fantastic because, as they advertise, you are ‘summoned for jury service,’ and ‘court is in session.’ By the very nature of the production, which is set in the old Greater London Council building, you are instantly immersed in a criminal court where a murder trial is being conducted. The atmosphere is, as it is in a courtroom for such a trial, gripping and tense from the very outset. You are, along with your fellow audience members, embroiled from the beginning. The audience reactions are also just as much part of the production and I found myself looking around to see how others were taking various pieces of evidence. The director, Lucy Bailey, has used the setting to maximum effect and you truly do feel that you are in the middle of a murder trial that could go either way in a time when the barristers worked in the shadow of the noose. I believe there are even tickets (when theatre productions are permitted again) to sit in the jury box itself. It is an incredible spectacle which the actors take full advantage of.
I was fortunate enough to see a magnificent cast for the Olivier Award-nominated play. This included the very excellent Carolin Stoltz as Romaine Vole, wife of the accused. She was that glorious mix of intelligent and beguiling enough to twist any situation. Leonard Vole was played by Lewis Cope, again excellent and displaying the nervous fragility and wide-eyed innocence that is essential. The lawyers included Simon Dutton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Giles Taylor playing Mr Myers QC, Michael Cochrane as Mr Justice Wainwright, and Tim Frances as Mr Mayhew. All of whom were very believable as upholders of a system they think of as infallible. Most of all, the story is gripping and carries you along to a conclusion no one could have expected.
I’d say as a slight aside, that this is not always the case with productions of Agatha Christie works. I recently listened to the audio full cast dramatisation starring Hywel Bennett and, although the acting was very good and the cast excellent, the story’s adaptation was rather chaotic and even though I know the story, I was finding it very confusing with a lot of strange snapshots involving the character of George who is only briefly alluded to in the short story. It really did highlight the fact that, in spite of everything else, any adaptation has to tell the story with clarity.
The 1957 film version achieved this fantastically. It starred, in my opinion, the greatest actor ever to play Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Charles Laughton. There’d been a TV production in 1953, the year the play opened, with Edward G. Robinson playing the role to good reviews. However, the 1957 Billy Wilder Movie attracted six Oscar nominations and has some utterly stand out actors in the various roles. Tyrone Power starred as Leonard Vole and this was to be his last full length film. He played the part with perfect understatement, the guileless, slightly feckless defendant who had more than a little of the used car salesman about him.
But the focus of the film is on the magnificent duel between two icons of cinema – Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid and Marlene Dietrich as Christine (changed from the name Romaine).
We see Sir Wilfrid at the very height of his profession, but weak through ill-health. He even uses this to his advantage in the courtroom, counting out his heart tablets and lining them up slowly and carefully. Their consumption marks out the passing of the time in court and is a distraction device he uses throughout. He delivers fabulous lines, particularly to his long suffering nurse played by Elsa Lanchester (his real life wife) such as when he attempts to negotiate the stairs after he comes home from hospital and says he must be careful otherwise ‘a barrister might fall off the banister.’ There is a joy to his wit, a mischievous, rebellious nature to him. In spite of his illness, he is a tower of strength in the court room. He will do everything and more to defend his client to the last – a characteristic, of course, which will be used by others for their own ends. Charles Laughton was said to have based his performance on his own lawyer, Florance Guedella, who incidentally was well known for his monocle! Charles Laughton is almost Churchillian at some points, with his profile, cigar in hand and posing with the ‘v’ sign. His wit and gravitas are matched perfectly against Marlene Dietrich’s Christine Vole.
The moment she walks into chambers, the screen is alight. She has an incredible magnetism that can confound anyone – even the best of defence barristers! Vivien Leigh was also in the running for the role but I think Marlene Dietrich is exactly as Agatha Christie describes Romaine Vole as she is called in the story, ‘perfectly calm and composed.’ Even after she has performed in a nightclub and is attacked by a large number of soldiers she seems only concerned about her trousers being ripped. This is a woman hardened by the war and the horrors she has endured. She suffers prejudice openly because of her nationality and her very obvious accent. She is immediately mistrusted, treated with a guardedness. She is a clever, resourceful woman which is a devastating combination when mixed with the fact that she is deeply in love with Mr Leonard Vole. Her passions run deep but she is an actress and plays her part very well indeed. As Agatha Christie tells us of Romaine Vole in her short story, ‘From the very first Mr Mayherne was conscious that he was up against something that he did not understand.’ Sir Wilfrid’s downfall is that he thinks he does understand, he is so certain he does and this is a woman no one can be sure of.
Diana Rigg is also excellent in the role in the 1982 TV adaptation. She is aloof, vulnerable and incredibly intelligent. She is more than a match for Ralph Richardson’s Sir Wilfrid who, although wonderful, does embrace that perception of the establishment, pompous barrister. Perhaps my sensitivity for this though stems from knowing many barristers who were like that! Less so nowadays but certainly there were many like this when I was starting out.
However, one criticism I would have, which is perhaps more a criticism of the make up than anything else, is that when Diana Rigg masquerades as the woman selling letters to Sir Wilfrid, it is very obviously Diana Rigg. That destabilises the whole plot really. With Marlene Dietrich, the first time I saw the production, I could not tell at all that it was her. Perhaps I was being a little naïve but it was rumoured that it cost her the Oscar since it was so good that the audiences didn’t actually know that role was in fact played by her as well. That’s maybe a little bit of Hollywood folklore though.
One thing both Diana Rigg and Marlene Dietrich had as well as everything else though, was sex appeal. They were the agent provocateur, the woman who is dangerously alluring. That characteristic, however, went to Kim Cattrall in the 2016 Sarah Phelps’ adaptation. I am all too aware of the arguments that rage over the modern versions of Agatha Christie novels that Sarah Phelps has written. Some think they are magnificent retellings that bring something new and different to the stories. Some, however, have very strong views in the opposite direction. I do not think I can write a post on Witness for the Prosecution without discussing this adaptation. Some people have written comments previously that these works should not even be discussed but I do not agree with that. I think all adaptations should be open to honest yet polite debate.
I think I should put it straight out there. I like this 2016 version. Yes, it is darker than intended. No, it is not exactly what Agatha Christie wrote. She certainly didn’t include sex scenes between Mr Mayhew (played by a fabulous and sick Toby Jones). However, it moves the narrative forward. This is not just a court room scene with a clever ending. This is about survival and what people will do to find happiness. As with all Sarah Phelps’ interpretations, because that is what they are – interpretations, she focuses in on different aspects that haven’t been under the spotlight before. But they are undoubtedly there. They are alluded to in the text of the story and the play. These human instincts, though veiled, are intended and this is just one way of bringing them to centre stage. I’m sure we would not want just another rehearsal of how witty and smart Sir Wilfrid is in court.
What this version shows us is a story not just about the motivations of men, but of women. It shows us a desperate, lonely woman with Emily French. Kim Cattrall plays this magnificently. She is rich and beautiful, but faded. She has large elements of the dark attraction we saw earlier with Marlene Dietrich and Diana Rigg in the Romaine/Christine Vole part. She can in parts be alluring but at others, when the young Leonard Vole is in her bath, she is an ageing predator. She is a woman who has invited this man into her life. What motivation is there really? She is by no means the wholesome widow. She showers a man with riches and attention for what? As with most of these areas of controversy, it is there in the original text. Agatha Christie may not have written a sex scene per se or even a predatory bath scene. But she wrote this about the lawyer’s perception of Emily French and we must remember she wrote these words in 1925. ‘He saw Miss French, infatuated with the good-looking young man, hunting about for pretexts that should bring him to the house.’ And then, ‘Emily French had been a strong-willed old woman, willing to pay her price for what she wanted.’ Leonard Vole himself was no innocent to this. He knew exactly what was going on when he says to his solicitor:
‘I’ll make a clean breast of it. I was hard up, as you know. I hoped that Miss French might lend me some money. She was fond of me, but she wasn’t at all interested in the struggles of a young couple. Early on, I found that she had taken it for granted that my wife and I didn’t get on – were living apart. Mr Mayherne – I wanted the money – for Romaine’s sake. I said nothing, and allowed the old lady to think what she chose.’
He says, quite honestly, ‘She showed so plainly her fondness and affection for me that I was placed in an awkward position.’
I believe the Sarah Phelps’ version captures this awkwardness perfectly. They both know, and we the audience know, from the very beginning that there is an ambiguity here, a distastefulness but honesty. She ‘mothers’ him, ‘pampers’ him, just as Agatha Christie describes. It is not a comfortable relationship to imagine or watch. But this comes at a price. She’s lonely, she’s sad, she’s rich and he’s poor. All the motivations are clearly set out. And Leonard Vole is a desperate man. It is not a new story and for the first time in an adaptation, Sarah Phelps gave Emily French a realistic voice, a depth that Agatha Christie had intended to be there. She’s not the drab old woman lingering in the shadows or the silly old woman who is being bamboozled. She’s the woman who will take the young man at whatever sordid price that might be.
The women take centre stage in this Sarah Phelps version. Not just with Kim Cattrall’s beautifully sad and truthful portrayal of Emily French. But Andrea Riseborough brings us all the wily intellect of a woman who has been to the very brink of despair and poverty. We see her and Leonard meet in the war in a state of despondency and near collapse. They hold each other up. We see true motivation for crimes that are, to most of us, unthinkable. I think we go right back to the short story with this version. She’s Romaine – not Christine. Mr Mayhew is pulled out of the shadows again. Agatha Christie tells us what Mr Mayhew thinks of Romaine in her short story, ‘Women were the devil when they got their knife into you.’ The Sarah Phelps’ version may not be exactly as Agatha Christie wrote it, but it is an adaptation. It adapts this story to show us a new, different edge – one that we may not have considered before.
There are other female characters too that have a new light shone on them in this adaptation. I’ve spoken earlier of the solicitor’s wife Alice Mayhew, played by Hayley Carmichael. She too is riddled by grief and broken by a time that brought heartache for so many. Her husband, played sensitively by Toby Jones, is the sick lawyer here, peering through wickets for crumbs of work, trying to please a disconnected wife. He finds his case in another broken man, or thinks he does. He searches for justice in a world that seems so very unjust – that has taken his son, and the best part of his wife. If he can win this, he can fix it – fix his wife. But there is no fixing this woman. She is distant, disengaged with life and she too is broken.
Then we see Monica Dolan as Janet McIntyre – Emily French’s maid and we can compare her grief at the loss of Miss French. She is devoted in a way that goes beyond employment. She is her lady. Men come. Men go. When Emily French is dead, she doesn’t even want the police to touch her. This woman belongs to her. It is another form of love again. A form that also manifests itself in jealousy and vengeance. A love for which she will see a man hang. Agatha Christie writes that Leonard Vole says, ‘She was jealous and suspicious.’ She is Miss Danvers to Emily French, the overly devoted maid whose love knows no bounds, is protective and can be interpreted in many different ways.
That, I think, is the essence of new adaptations. They interpret the text in a new and innovative way. Yes, there are changes. Yes, people will disagree. But the important thing is it keeps it alive. This is a short story written almost a hundred years ago but the motivations of the characters are as real today as they were then – desperate, clever people who will go to unthinkable ends to survive – who will take on the equally clever pillars of the establishment and use any tool at their disposal.