Theater and cinema have been playing hot, competitive tennis for over a century. Who can forget those mysterious, disarming close-ups of Marlene Dietrich in the 1957 movie version of Witness for the Prosecution? But sometimes the advantage belongs to theater, particularly Bristol Riverside Theater’s current production.
Whodunit as metaphor
In Bristol’s handsome production of Agatha Christie’s whodunit, set designer Jason Simms takes his best shot. In the courtroom, the shipshape arrangement of furnishings backs up the orderliness of legal proceedings. But when the set swivels to the private chambers of Keith Baker’s barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (handled with stellar economy), it’s astonishing.
This huge room is paneled in burnished wood from floor to ceiling. Shaded wall lamps, chairs, and bookcases flank the towering central chimney in precise symmetry. It is as though the need for exacting order has taken over Sir Wilfrid’s life. Though stunning, the room, so totally engulfing, inspires the urge to utterly vandalize it and beat a hasty escape.
Then there’s the uneasy marriage between Leonard and Romaine Vole. Though he's a war veteran, young, handsome Leonard (Matt Leisy) seems more like an American gee-whiz kid as he wins Robarts over with guileless charm. His German war bride, Romaine (Eleanor Handley), an apparent femme fatale, is both comical and scary in her dismissal of others’ desires.
This ground has been well trod, from the novels of Henry James, which contrast the innocence of Americans with continental worldliness, to Graham Greene’s The Third Man (Greene shared Christie’s disdain of Americans). But is Leonard rube or murderous player? What does Romaine really want?
Another battle also rages: Sir Wilfrid’s need for a compelling, sensible moral order versus life’s actual untidiness -- the subterranean realm of human will and passion. Decent, avuncular Sir Wilfrid (played by Baker with unerring conviction) has no idea what he risks when tangling with the Voles.
Courtroom and comedy
A cascade of amusing witnesses precedes the Voles, culminating in Janet Mackenzie (Sharon Alexander), the cranky caretaker of Mrs. French, and coroner Mr. Clegg (James Luse), hilarious in his fumbling. We see more pointed comedy in Sir Wilfrid’s private chambers, where his fussbudget chamberlain, Mr. Carter (Kenneth Boys), struggles to stop the master from sneaking in liquor and cigars -- Robarts’s sole attempt at being naughty.
When the Voles finally testify, Leonard twists around in boyish indignation to plead with judge and jury while Romaine remains wonderfully imperious. It feels like you are truly in court, so much so that, if director Susan D. Atkinson staged a court crier asking the audience to rise, they would.
And then there was Agatha
Edgar Allan Poe kick started the mystery genre with The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Arthur Conan Doyle brought his variation on detective C. Auguste Dupin to London. But Agatha Christie is the acknowledged queen of modern mystery. Her grasp of character and sense of larger underlying issues make her best yarns spoiler-proof.
But Witness feels personal. In 1926, Christie disappeared from her home, sparking a nationwide police search. Her car was found abandoned by a cliff. She was found 11 days later, living in a hotel room as “Mrs. Teresa Neele,” the name of her husband’s mistress. Though publicly mum about the business, I think we see a lot of Agatha in Romaine Vole’s beyond-good-and-evil torment some 25 years later.