A mesmerizing courtroom drama.

By: Jun. 17, 2024
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Time travel back to the age of film noir when black and white movie dramas were played to the hilt with overarching mannerisms, full of prototypical characters and not too subtle close ups full of tension inducing musical scores. The Shaw Festival is producing one from that ilk with the classic Agatha Christie courtroom mystery WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and the result is mesmerizing audiences at the Royal George Theatre.

The intimacy of the theatre and the fine  physical design of the production add  the perfect amount of period atmosphere to this whodunnit. Just when you think Agathe Christie can't outsmart her audience, a twist occurs that may or not be a red herring. WITNESS is thoroughly captivating in that you hang on every word, playing amateur sleuth as the quick 3 hours passes.

 Leonard Volle becomes the number one suspect in the murder of a wealthy woman  who  befriended  him after he came to her aid on a streetcorner. Volle is out of work and married to Russian woman, Romaine Volle. The wealthy woman is found murdered in her home on the one night her housekeeper (Mrs. Janet MacKenzie) has off. But Mrs. MacKenzie returns home briefly, believing she hears Leonard's voice behind closed doors. Later that night,  the house appears to be broken into and the wealthy woman has been killed by a bash to the back of her head. A change in the victim's will leads to a plethora of potential killers.

Andrew Lawrie is the fidgety Leonard, mild mannered and portrayed in such a way to doubt that a man of his nature could perform such a heinous act. Lawrie is fully believable as the tormented prisoner, giving a performance of  intense desperation. The juicy role of Romaine falls into the capable hands of Marla McLean. Her slow, calculated movements and Russian accent make her the ultimate woman of mystery. McLean relishes every line, firm in her delivery without a hint of doubt, in her own mind.

Director Alistair Newton understands the idiom perfectly, guiding the cast along with a nod to stark realism and stock characters found in film noir, along with an occasional hint of melodramatic lighting and giggle inducing musical interjections. There is the ditzy, wise cracking barrister secretary Greta, played with the right amount of sass by Fiona Byrne.... The sage judge, Mr Justice Wainwright, played with a commanding presence by Shawn Wright, although he is given a few choice comic lines to show how he is not in touch with present day idioms. There is a housekeeper  Mrs. MacKenzie , who suffers no fools played beautifully by Monica Parks.  Martin Happer is the blustery Inspector Hearne, employed to give the facts from the crime scene, but leaves doubt as to the cause. What plays out includes hints of espionage, infidelity, and pure greed .

And what would a courtroom drama be without it's group of attorneys. Shaw Festival  favorite Patrick Galligan is Sir Wilfrid Robarts, head attorney representing the Defense. Galligan turns in a strong performance of the man who grapples with the facts that simply don't add up. His part in the puzzle is largely to cast doubt in the prosecutions arguments. The second act takes place in London's Central Criminal Court, aka the Old Bailey. Christies' script is expertly written, but in lesser hands could lack intensity. Newton ensures that everyone in the theatre is fully invested, even having the silent  jury be unseen, but staged so as to have the attorney's address the audience, as if we were the jury.

A unified design plays like a 1950's film, with set pieces and costumes all in black, white and shades of  grey. Only when Romaine appears, are we treated to pops of emerald green or garnet red. Costume Designer Judith Bowden nails the period, with tailored suits for the men, and beautifully draped dresses. Sets by Karyn McCallum are boldly realistic, but a change in backdrop for the final court room scene employed some projections that seemed from a totally different production.

As we exit the theatre, an onstage  projection  askes the audience to KEEP THE SECRET. Well ,that secret is a darn good one, and for any first timers, play the guessing game. The end result is pure Agatha Christie and is fully satisfying. The Shaw Festival has turned out a near perfect production here and is sure to beguile audiences all season.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION plays at The Royal George Theatre of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Contact shawfest,com for more information


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