Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie is currently playing at the London County Hall near Waterloo station. I managed to get a seat high in the gallery and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
Leonard Vole, a young, good-looking and mild-mannered man is arrested for the murder
of Emily French, a wealthy older woman. Already, you can probably guess where this is going; the older woman looking for romance and the young, manipulative man being an unhealthy common motif in murder stories. Apparently unaware that Mr Vole was a married man; Miss French makes him her heir to a rather large fortune. While is lawyers try desperately to get him acquitted, trouble comes in the shape of his wife, who seemingly turns against him and appears as a witness for the prosecution.
The question arises: is Mr Vole a murderer, or does his wife have a secret motive to lie and give damaging testimony?
Like when I went to the cinema to see Murder on the Orient Express, I wasn’t going to uncover a mystery. It’s difficult to ever go back these stories with the same sense of wonder you once had when you now know who did it. But you go to see it done right and see what new angles they can find in Christie’s rich and complex characters.
Both the play’s website and the Agatha Christie website describe this as an immersive experience and it’s certainly that. I was all the way up in the gallery, literally the furthest back row you could get and I still loved it. It would have been exactly where a curious bystander with no money would have sat, watching this rather morbid form of public entertainment. What the play suffered for only having really one set and a limit to what they could do with it, it gained from simply being in the grand, real-world courtroom.
When you first get there, the ushers welcome you to the ‘Old Bailey’. Don’t be confused; the London County Hall is not the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is where the play is set, but not where the performance is taking place. That’s not to say London County Hall doesn’t have its own history; until 1986, County Hall (or London County Hall) was the seat of London’s local government and it’s still a gorgeous old building.
The Old Bailey, on the other hand, is the building with the sculpture of Justice, not far from St Pauls and Spitalfields Market. Fans of V for Vendetta might remember it being blown up to the tune of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
Witness for the Prosecution is running until 10th March 2018 so if I’ve managed to peak your interest, I highly recommend going for the experience!
I go into the play and themes below so if you want to avoid spoilers, stop here!
The original ending for the Witness for the Prosecution ended immediately after Mrs Vole’s confession that she aided her husband’s case by appearing to be lying to get him hanged. When presented with a vindictive wife with a secret lover, who is desperate to get her husband executed, a jury would naturally side with the plaintiff.
This would have made it one of Agatha Christie’s few stories where the murder gets away with it. Perhaps inevitably for the time she was writing in, she grew dissatisfied with it.
This story uses the wonderful little loophole in the law called double jeopardy where you can’t be tried for the same crime twice. Witness for the Prosecution is probably where a lot of people first learned about this useful little law. It meant that despite it being obvious that Mr Vole did kill Miss Franks, the law couldn’t retry him for murder. Hence Mr and Mrs Vole’s freedom, despite the confession.
This is the ending you might have seen in the latest BBC One version in 2016, where the incomparable Toby Jones plays the lawyer, John Mayhew. It’s a very good adaptation, but beware in that it builds up a lot of backstory for Mayhew, which is frankly not in the play. But I personally enjoyed because Toby Jones really doesn’t get enough screen time in my opinion.
The ending playing at the London County Hall at the moment is faithful to her altered version, where a mistress of Mr Vole’s appears right at the end to reveal that he and her husband are running away together with Miss Frank’s money. Mrs Vole then attacks her husband, stabbing him in the back. Literally.
For me, the original ending I think fits better with modern storytelling. We have a certain proclivity for the real world and its injustice. It’s somehow more darkly satisfying that the murderers get away with it. It’s a relativity new mindset of audiences, which just didn’t exist in Agatha Christie’s time. The repeating motif is the lawyer’s faith that the British Justice system is the ‘best in the world’. An ending, which throws that assertion into massive doubt and shakes the protagonist’s view of the world, seems somehow more fitting than the conclusion that justice is somehow universal. Yes, Mr Vole was found not guilty and escaped justice in court, but justice finds you in the end. While that’s a fairly familiar theme in Agatha Christie’s works, it’s too rosy a view for modern readers.
All in all, this is not perhaps my favourite of Christie’s plays – go see Mousetrap – but it’s certainly an involving take on the concept of justice in an old-world setting. Definitely worth the watch, whether it’s at the theatre, the BBC One version with Toby Jones or wait for the movie which apparently is going to be directed by Ben Afflick… I shall withhold judgment until I’ve seen it!