Direction: N.S. Yamuna
Dame Agatha Christie needs little introduction to a generation of Indians that grew up reading her. Along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she is one of the finest crime writers that the literary world has ever known. Though Earl Stanley Gardner is legendary for his riveting courtroom fiction, Christie's Witness for the Prosecution has often been considered as mesmerizing a story that unfolds through the legal examination and cross-examination in London's Old Bailey.
With the Agatha Christie Theatre Company now celebrating her 120th birth anniversary by touring Britain with her Witness for the Prosecution, The Madras Players was naturally excited by the prospect of staging the play for a city that had not seen it in roughly two decades.
Originally written by Christie as a short story in the early 1930s, it first came into the limelight about 25 years later, when Billy Wilder adapted it to the screen with Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton. A few years earlier, the stage version had appeared in Britain. Chennai perhaps saw a theatrical production of it much later, though the city's older residents seem to remember the movie, not quite the play.
So, director Yamuna's attempt to recreate the Christie magic with an entirely Indian cast was certainly ambitious, with Mithran Devanesen's set and lighting capturing the mood and ambiance of the British courtroom and the lawyer's chambers. The Madras Players edition of Witness for the Prosecution ran over two hours with a short break in the metropolis most impressive and historic Museum Theatre. The original plot appeared to have been retained.
Young Leonard Vole (enacted by Vivek Hariharan) is accused of murdering an elderly woman, who, it is found, bequeathed her enormous wealth to him. Defending Vole, barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Sudhir Ahuja) finds that the accusedâ€™s wife, Romaine (Tehzeeb Katari), has been summoned as a witness for the prosecution, led by Myers (N.L. Rajah). Though initially agreeing to provide an alibi for her husband, Romaine later testifies against him saying that her conscience did not permit her to lie.
In a neat twist to the tale, Vole is found innocent after a mysterious woman hands over to Sir Wilfrid a bunch of letters written by Romaine to her lover. The jury concludes that Romaine had a strong motive to send her husband to the gallows.
The drama, however, does not end before a couple of more masterly turns, which will astound those not familiar with the storyline.
Unfortunately, Yamuna's aspiration to enthrall us with the Christie mystique fell short of actually creating it. Except for a superb presentation by relatively-new-to-stage Hariharan “whose sense of timing, intonation and, in general, dialogue delivery were almost comparable to a professional actor“ other performers, most notably S.B.S. Raman (who essays the judge, Mr Justice Wain Wright), Rajah and Ahuja, paled in contrast. Poor speech modulation, lack of clarity, improper pronunciation and the failure to throw their voices across the auditorium made it difficult to follow their lines.
Obviously, they have had no voice training and apparently very few practice sessions. In comparison, Preetha as Sir Wilfridâ€™s personal assistant, Greta, and Katari were miles ahead of these men, though Tehzeeb seemed listless in the second half.
Although Yamuna may not easily agree with the fact that theatre is largely an actor's medium, maybe a better choice of cast could have lifted or just about Witness for the Prosecution to the exhilaration that Christie's play once generated.