Catherine Steadman interview - 'Witness for the Prosecution will keep the audience guessing to the end'
Previews begin on Friday for a new immersive production of Witness for the Prosecution, directed by Lucy Bailey, which will take place at London County Hall on the South Bank. The production will take place in the Council Chamber, which will be designed to resemble the Old Bailey. Catherine Steadman will play Romaine Vole in the play, and we asked her about the immersive piece, Agatha Christie’s influence on British storytelling, and visiting the Old Bailey for inspiration.
Without giving too much away, what is Witness for the Prosecution about?
"The basic premise is a man shows up at a barrister’s chambers needing representation for what he thinks will be an impeding arrest. He explains the situation that an old lady he used to be friends with is dead and he has nothing to do with it. It’s the barrister’s job to get him off. The witness for the prosecution turns out to be someone you aren’t expecting it to be. I can’t really say much without giving it away! The court case doesn’t quite go the way anyone expects it to."
The play is taking place in the unique setting of London County Hall, what’s the venue like?
"The good thing about having it play in London County Hall in the courtroom is that the audience will go through it beat by beat not knowing who is responsible for the murder or who’s doing what. It should be really exciting and very immediate. It’s an amazing building and it’s amazing how much it looks like the Old Bailey. They’ve used the same green and cream marble in both buildings, it feels like a pretty close resemblance. It’s huge too, really epic."
How have rehearsals been going?
"Yesterday, we all went on a recce to the Old Bailey, which is where the play is set. We were shown around and let in on a lot of the secret backstage stuff which was really interesting. We were looking around kind of wishing we were there to do jury service and sit on a proper case. But that’s what the audience will actually get to do. We were working on all the ritualised ceremonial aspects of the court case, we will be making it very immersive. From the moment the audience arrives, it will feel like arriving for an actual court case. It will feel very immediate and exciting."
So the audience will get to be the jury?
"It is early days, but I think the play is to have a foreman of the jury appointed. There are special jury seats on sale for 12 lucky people, and each performance one of them will have to do lines in the play. Hopefully people will feel involved."
The play is over 60 years old, so won’t a lot of people know what’s going to happen anyway?
"I think people think they know what happens because they’ve seen the TV version, but there are two different versions. One is the short story version which takes place just after the First World War, which was recently on TV. That has a very different ending to the play version, which is set after World War Two. It has different characters in it and a completely different ending. Agatha Christie fans might know both versions, but not necessarily which one we’re doing. You’ll still be kept guessing about the outcome until the very last scene, hopefully."
Are you an Agatha Christie fan?
"I love Agatha Christie. So much of British television is based on either her work or her legacy. So many crime dramas, Midsomer Murders, Rebus, even Doctor Foster at the moment. I think that’s one of our greatest exports in this country: stories based around private detectives and people who aren’t necessarily involved directly with the law trying to figure out who’s guilty."
Have you ever performed in anything site-specific like this before?
"I don’t think I have. I love going to things like Punchdrunk shows. A lot of the time I go to Punchdrunk shows and their intention isn’t for you to follow the narrative because you’d be falling around the place. You’d have to go five or so times to clearly get the narrative. But with this, you’re immersed in it and there’s a very clear storyline, so I think you get the best of both worlds."
Has it been a while since you’ve been on stage?
"The last show I did was Oppenheimer which was about two years ago. It’s nice to be back in a rehearsal room and work out the journey and really get to know the character. It’s been really interesting. Especially learning about the justice process during the period. As soon as the sentence was passed, they were taken straight down to the basement and hung which is crazy. At one point it got down to seven seconds between leaving the cell and being dead. A really important thing that Lucy [Bailey, director] is trying to get across is that this isn’t like a drama we’d see on the telly. If things went wrong for you in court at the time, you would die. If the decision was wrong, you’d be gone."
Witness for the Prosecution Tickets are on sale now.