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  • Writer's pictureSora Sasaki

Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution - Doomed to fail, yet succeeds anyway?

This post will contain spoilers! Now I am a compulsive reader of spoilers, but this one is different: I genuinely feel that Witness for the Prosecution can only be enjoyed properly once and spoilers will be even more detrimental to your enjoyment of the play than spoiling Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name) was to my enjoyment of the film, so don't ruin your one chance! Go and watch the play and then (maybe?) come back.

With my musical bucket list exhausted and having been blown away by the Life of Pi stage production, I decided to take the chance to try out some classic plays. When it comes to plays I am extremely uncultured (even more so than I am on musicals; I at least know the names of a few of those) so naturally I decided to go for the one I had heard mentioned the most: Witness for the Prosecution.

I will admit that going into the play, I knew very little about the premise or even the author: I knew that it was about a court case, most likely a murder (given that somewhere in the recesses of my mind, Agatha Christie was somehow associated with murder mystery books) and that was pretty much it. What ended up being the play's demise, however, was rather what I knew about the play, namely that it was famous and it had a twist. Whilst I was admittedly convinced for the majority of the play that the twist was that the people sitting in the jury seats would actually get to decide whether Leonard was convicted or not (spoilers: they don't - surprisingly it's a bit tricky to land a point impactfully when your characters may or may not play along with the script) it also constantly sat at the back of my mind for the entire first act that it couldn't be as simple as winning the case for a poor victim of a chain of unfortunate coincidences because no, that was just too obvious. A quick riffle through the programme in the interval gave me the remaining pieces to the puzzle (the title of the first draft "Hostile Witness", which brought to mind the idea of a sort of "unreliable narrator" (because Romaine being the hostile witness would, again, be too obvious) and the comment that the play questions "whether the court of law really does reveal the truth and deliver justice" were particularly telling) leading me to the answer to the one question in a murder mystery you don't want to know the answer to until the end. My conviction of Leonard's guilt was, of course, not driven by anything that has thus far been revealed in the play, but rather, the knowledge that the play was clever eliminated all the other options; of course it would be absolutely delightful to convince an audience that such an obviously guilty man is innocent and then have it turn out that a great triumph for justice was, in fact, the opposite.

After that, the play was still pleasant: whilst I had my theories about what motive they would use to discredit Romaine, it was a pleasant surprise when she turned around and called it a set up, but I felt it had been spoiled for me by the circumstances. Afterwards, I spent time picking at it with an air of superiority like I had somehow defeated it ("Oh, I do believe it leaned too heavily on telling rather than showing how charming and personable Leonard's persona is, but what they did at the end with the lights and the Lady Justice statue was quite nice....") and was rather content to sit in my own perceived smartness until I thought back to the first act and that sense of discomfort I had felt every time I questioned the innocence of the main character. And that's when I realised that the play still makes its point even if you know who the murderer is. One of the key themes I think it explores is this idea of bias and how a charming personality can sway hearts more than logic or hard evidence and, whilst I stand by my opinion that it relies too heavily on the characters to tell you that Leonard is personable and naive rather than actually convincing you that he is (I can't tell if it's a testament to the actor's ability or inability that I spent the first act thinking that he must be a mediocre actor because Leonard feels like he's acting), I realised that it doesn't matter because the play is set up so well to make you biased in his favour from the get go. First there's his dream sequence as the first scene (an extremely well staged scene on that matter) which not only places him as the main character, but also gives us a peak into what appears to be an innocent man's internal thoughts revealing his fear of a wrongful conviction. Then Sir Wilfrid, framed as another main character, questions his opponent, Mr Myers', morality (implicitly implying that he has the moral high ground). It is this setup that leaves you wanting to believe in Leonard's innocence despite the mounting evidence against him and that keeps you rooting for Sir Wilfrid's victory even though he increasingly shows himself to be blinded by prejudice and driven by hate (whether of Romaine or of Mr Myers). In the same way that a personable character affects the ability of the jury to make rational decisions based on the evidence presented, we don't see the plot twist that Leonard is in fact guilty coming because we are wired to be sympathetic to the main character and even though you do notice early on, you still got to experience that feeling of having to peel back layers of bias to arrive at the obvious truth because Agatha Christie harnesses the one bias that everyone consuming a piece of media will have.

What is even more compelling about the play is that its themes extend far beyond even the theoretical question of the effectiveness of our court set ups in determining innocence and into the world around us. The smooth winning over of useful people with nothing more than a "personable" character definitely hits too close to home in the world of corporate London whilst the clear disparity in what a foreign woman must do to convince people versus the almost blind trust that is afforded to charming white men like Leonard rings eerily true to the experiences of my foreign work friends. Even in the realm of real world criminal cases there are numerous articles (the validity of which I cannot comment, but am anecdotally compelled to believe) on topics ranging from lower conviction rates among conventionally attractive defendants to convicted murderers having not insignificant fanbases due to their appearance. All of this goes to show how little society has changed in the years between Agatha Christie's writings and now, perhaps a disappointing thought given how progressive people like to think modern day society is and the noise that is made around equality and prejudice. Equally, I think it goes deeper than a construct of society and into the inner wirings of how human nature and how we instinctively interact with the world, which is why Witness for the Prosecution still speaks to people today.

All in all, I'm glad that I went to see the play; the staging is great (especially inside the old County Hall) and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey it took me through as I confronted the biases which prevented me from immediately seeing what should have been the obvious answer to the classic question of whodunit?


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