Agatha Christie’s Courtroom Thriller: Style and a Twist

Solving murder is fun in Witness for the Prosecution at Vienna’s English Theatre; an imperfect lead, but overall a fine ensemble

Austrian actress Katharina Stemberger in a challenging dual role

Austrian actress Katharina Stemberger in a challenging dual role | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

Agatha Christie is always a treat. A full parade of villains and charmers, elegant settings from a time we feel was much nicer than our own, and a twist in the tale that keeps us engaged to the end.

Witness for the Prosecution, originally not a play at all but a short story entitled Traitor Hands, was first published in 1925.

Following the wild success of The Mousetrap in 1952 (Londoners recently celebrated its 25,000th performance), Christie was persuaded to adapt Traitor Hands for the stage; it was then that she gave it its current name.

In 1957, it was made into a Hollywood film starring Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton.

The film, directed by Austrian expatriate Billy Wilder, was an immediate hit, and this production takes its time cue from it, with curvy ladies in hats and gloves and chaps in reliable tweeds.

It’s a murder mystery, but it’s also fun. The clear and unobtrusive direction of Philip Dart, a regular guest director at Vienna’s English Theatre, allows the script to speak for itself.

We are immediately interested in the people; we are immediately interested in the story, and every so often irony emerges from beneath the familiar tropes; Agatha Christie is (almost) sending herself up.

It’s a big cast, mostly British, and on the whole, strong. Vienna audiences had the pleasure of seeing Robin Kingsland in the starring role of GBS in the English Theatre’s 2011 production of Engaging Shaw; here, he plays barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts, and reveals the easy elegance of his ensemble acting.

Chris Polick is ideally cast as the (dis)ingenuous Leonard Vole, and Clare Scott is a lovely, daffy Greta, the tea-girl; lesser roles are also very capably filled. But the audience appeared to almost fall in love with Margaret Fraser as the crabby Scottish housekeeper, Janet.

Fraser plays her as a delightful caricature and a thoroughly believable old girl at the same time – no mean feat.

Two double roles are especially worthy of note: Martyn Stanbridge as the handsome solicitor Mayhew and the quirky old Dr Wyatt, doggedly resisting manipulation by the slick-tongued men of the law.

John Fleming as Sir Wilfred’s Cockney clerk, Carter, and the stuffy, toffey Old Bailey Judge. A case of first-rate unrecognizability on all counts: Bravo.

Viennese-born, Los Angeles-trained Katharina Stemberger stars as the pivotal character, Romaine, wife of Leonard Vole, supposed murderer – or is he? – of rich old Miss French.

It is a challenging role, demanding great subtlety of speech and comportment, and disappointingly, Stemberger proves unequal to it.

It is part of Agatha Christie’s game that the audience should not know whether Romaine is “snake in the grass or butterfly on the wheel”, as an early critic had it. Stemberger’s talent is not flexible enough for this kind of ambiguity, and the production loses important moments of tension because of it.

There is a language problem, too: Romaine is a German woman, so that Ms Stemberger’s Viennese-accented English fits well; but Romaine plays a double role, and here the marked pronunciation, together with an unvaried voice production, quickly betrays the lady – and part of the twist as well, since, unlike the double roles played by Stanbridge and Fleming, Stemberger’s is central to the plot.

No whodunnit can afford this kind of giveaway.

Robin Kingsland as Sir Wilfred, Katharina Stemberger as Romaine     |  Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

Robin Kingsland as Sir Wilfred, Katharina Stemberger as Romaine | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

The English Theatre is not known as a place of experiments, but perhaps the management might consider one: As well as information about the play itself, the accompanying programme contains small biographies of the actors, director, set designer and so on.

By convention,  these are little more than a list of productions in which the actor, say, has previously appeared.

Audience members wanting to learn something about him or her are fobbed off with a screed of titles of umpteen plays and television shows, often without specified roles given, so that no real profile emerges of the actor’s talents or interests.

Every theatre programme regurgitates these lists, but do they really serve much purpose? Wouldn’t it be better to list only the major roles or the most recent, and then have space to introduce the actor with a little more breadth?

In this programme, we had a taste of this with the biography of Robin Kingsland; we learned that he is a writer as well as an actor, and that he is involved in children’s television, too. Presumably Kingsland provided this more interesting text himself; other actors might profitably follow suit.

Mention must be made of Sue Mayes’ set: It is brilliant, metamorphosing from barrister’s chambers to Old Bailey courtroom and back with minimum fuss and maximum style:

Bravissimo.

 

Witness for the Prosecution

Through 21 Dec.

Vienna’s English Theatre

8., Josefsgasse 12

www.englishtheatre.at

 

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