BWW Interview: Jasper Britton Talks WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Witness for the Prosecution announced that it would be extending its run at London County Hall this week, with court now in session until March 2020.
Actor Jasper Britton is not unknown to this court, having given testimony in a previous case last year. Giving evidence as to why people should experience Witness for the Prosecution, Jasper shares what it's like to play this venue and with these immersed audiences.
Before we start, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
You're currently appearing in Witness for the Prosecution. How familiar were you with Agatha Christie's stories?
Well I must confess: not at all, to my shame.
I've never been a particular fan of 'Who dunnit?' It's always because I find them a bit confusing. I could never learn to play Cluedo, it's too complicated.
I watch these mysteries on TV and go, "I've got no idea who did it". It's always the people I think who did it that turn out to be innocent. But obviously I've seen Murder on the Orient Express and bits and pieces like that.
So how did you prepare for coming to this genre and this story?
That reminds me: Brian Cox directed me as Richard III a few years ago and we were watching Laurence Olivier in his Richard III. There's a bit where he takes Buckingham's hand and forces him to stoop and bow to Richard. Brian saw it and said, "Let's do that". I said, "We can't, it's Olivier's". And Brian went, "Oh, no-one will remember!" So we did steal (or nod to) it and it was okay.
In that respect, I did see if there was anything I could magpie from Charles Laughton because he also played Sir Wilfrid. Of course, it's a very different script. But he taught me something about the place that you could go playing a barrister, giving me an added impetus that I was already invited to explore by Lucy Bailey.
This isn't your first time working with her, is it?
No, it's the fourth time we've worked together. Lucy always has such a wonderful, maverick and anarchic way of working. It's fun to work with her and to try and please her.
One of the rather brilliant things she's managed to pull off here is the immersion. There's so many facets to this show that you wouldn't necessarily think were there until suddenly you're in the room, the thing is happening in front of you, and you are a part of it.
That and the ending. Because even if you know the story, the end is not what you expect...
How have audiences been reacting to that then?
You can hear the intakes of breath, the gasps; some people literally shout out involuntarily, because they are so shocked. It's so great to hear everybody getting it as it unravels itself and the real villain (or villains) are revealed.
We have that reaction across audiences. And we have had a marvellously broad spread of people coming to see it: all ages, all religions, all nations.
Almost like how an unbiased jury should be.
That's another thing: the jury is actually made up of audience members. They have a foreman who stands up and is asked by the clerk if they agree on the verdict: "Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?"
It's always exciting for the audience to see one of them get up and deliver the verdict. And when anybody stands up in front of the audience, they immediately become naked in a way; you see who that person is very clearly. Their defences (ironically) are unavailable to them in that moment.
And I love getting to know the jury and who ends up being the foreman...or fore-child! We once had a six year old deliver it.
It's like you just said: we've had all sorts of people as the foreman. Children, Americans, we even had a retired judge once, an actual judge.
And you know, I'm used to working in subsidised theatre and with that there's often a...shall we say, more mature audience. I often think, "Who's going to take over as audience members?" You know when that audience have decided they don't want to come any more, for one reason or another.
So it's very heartening to see the enjoyment in a very different group of people's eyes around me. Because we can see the audience very clearly, they actually sit next to me and William Chubb, who plays the counsel for the prosecution against me as defence.
Because that's another other thing to note: it does take place in London County Hall.
I mean it is quite jaw dropping, the first time you walk into that room...even for us as actors. The architecture is so grandiose, there are huge marble panels and pillars.
I think the hall dates from the 20's, but there is something timeless and yet also of its time. There's a severity to it that really works on the audience, the sense of a space affecting people. There are those notions you bring with you when you enter a certain kind of space, of what it is and how you should act.
It's bit like being in church. You think, "Gosh, I must keep my knees together and not cough and don't do anything wrong". But gradually you go, "It's alright, they're just telling me a story and it's quite funny".
And once they're at ease, they feel they can laugh and they engage. I love watching that. There are little pauses when the witnesses change in the court scene, which give everybody a chance to turn to each other. You hear all kinds of things, "What did you think?" "I think what they said made sense". "Wait, how could possibly believe think they're telling the truth?" It's great to see how caught up in it they are.
It sounds like you want to watch it too.
I do, I do! I'd love to be in the jury and watch it actually. (Maybe I'll throw a sickie one night and come in heavily disguised.)
Because it's an experience: it's not like going to the theatre where you sit in the dark and just eavesdrop. You're very much in it with us. I always greet my neighbours when I come in for the court scenes.
That's something I love about the all-embracing nature of the piece, the fact you can really look at people in the talk to them, just as I imagine a barrister would too.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz