Witness To ‘Witness For The Prosecution’

Have you ever sat in on a court case where a man is on trial for murder, and if found guilty, will be sentenced to death? A situation where you have no idea whether the man is innocent or guilty and who else may have been involved. An instance where all you can do is sit there, patiently waiting, and offering your best guess as to what really had happened when in reality, you do not have the slightest clue. I had the privilege of watching Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie at the London County Hall; an actual courtroom. I was able to sit directly next to the stage, and it was one of the most immersive experiences of my life. It felt as though I was a part of this trial, as I was right there, next to all the actors (although in this case, they did not feel as such). I was able to catch every single one of their facial expressions; lip twitches, frowns, even tears, something you could not experience in a dark theatre, with one thousand seats. It felt as if both the defense and the prosecution were trying to convince me, specifically that the man on trial was either innocent or guilty. The immersive nature of the show itself allowed myself to give every ounce of my attention to every nuance and every little detail on the stage.

The nature of Agatha Christie’s stories is that they are meant to deceive you and keep you mesmerized by having you guess as to who is responsible for committing the crime. This play did not fall short of these expectations. The fact that I had no idea what the ending would be, kept me engaged. It kept me curious in my desire to get my answer. Deception can keep entire audiences involved in the show, because the audience want to see if their guesses were correct all along or if something else happens entirely. The fact that the show was played in an actual courtroom and not a traditional theatre gave the play a certain authenticity that you would not have gotten otherwise. The Guardian mentioned that “the play’s appeal lies not just in its mystery but in its courtroom formality.” This review supports the fact this play wasn’t impressive due to the fantastic acting and the underlying mystery, but also on the fact that the courtroom, which in itself is a very theatrical event, allowed for a complete show experience. I walked out of the theatre with my jaw-dropped, in absolute shock as to how it had ended, and I attribute that to not only the plot, but also the way the plot was presented to me.

Theatre is supposed to keep you entertained, and always keep you wanting more. It should have moments that just make you say, “Wow. I can’t believe that.” Witness for the Prosecution, at the London County Hall allowed me to have a continuous, two and a half hour ‘wow’ moment that escalated to immeasurable heights right as it ended, because after waiting for that long for my answer, I had finally received it. In such a spectacular way no less. If you are reading this, and are in London in the near future, make it your priority to see this production.

Notes from the field about “Notes From The Field”

On the evening of June 23, I had the absolute privilege (I’ll return to this in a bit) of seeing the final London performance of Anna Deavere Smith’s one woman show “Notes From The Field” with my Destination Theatre class.  This show was a collection of performed personal accounts from interviews Smith conducted herself, all centred around the topic of the “school to prison pipeline” in North America. She interviewed around 250 people in total for this project, which began in 2011, and was first performed in 2015.

Smith defines this “pipeline” for us on her website, which I highly recommend visiting by following the associated link:

“Basically, the US Justice Department released statistics that show that poor black, brown and Native American children are suspended and expelled more frequently than their middle-class and white counterparts, and that these suspensions and expulsions are directly linked to the likelihood that they will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.”

http://www.annadeaveresmith.org/category/notes-from-the-field/

I am myself a middle-class white female who grew up primarily in North Carolina, but near communities that only upon reflection do I now realize mirrored some of those depicted in Smith’s performance. I remember having a school safety officer, a large white man with a badge who we’d see wandering, or patrolling, the halls. These were my younger years, mind any reader. And there were students, children, who brought drugs or weapons into the school as early as grade 6, who were being indoctrinated into gangs because that’s just what someone from their own communities was accustomed to. These children were generally African American or Hispanic. Maybe there was a precedent for our safety officer, but there is no doubt that there were underlying social mechanisms at play concerning who was at risk of becoming criminalized at a young age and why.

So, privilege. When I was a kid in that school with the safety officer, I felt safe. I had nothing to fear. But other students did, and I was blissfully unaware of how much more there was, or should have been, to student discipline. That there was a story or a reason behind misbehaviour, and more intervention may have been required than a reactionary punishment. That the reactionary punishment was possibly an overreaction, and damaging in some way to the student. It was my privilege to not have to worry about these things, and it was imperative that I learned that I should worry.

If this is something that I, at 21 years old, remember from my childhood, then it is obviously something that has been happening for years, likely beginning far before I began elementary school, and potentially lasting far into our future as well. This is something that can be stopped though, and this is what Smith is trying to do, in her own way. Through using such an emotionally accessible medium as her performance is, Smith raises awareness and educates her audiences on this “pipeline” problem. Often, theatre isn’t a physically accessible medium though, for such demographics as those depicted in her show (good news though, a filmed version is now available on HBO). It is most accessible to relatively privileged communities, but these are the people who need to learn about these social injustices, because the people affected by them already know. So upon learning and leaving this show, I hope that others like myself will move forward recognizing our privilege, and using it in a way that means something. Ask questions, demand answers, and stand up for your neighbours. And share your HBO Go password so everyone can see this vital piece of theatre.

When Theatre Transforms Spaces

Studying how the city of London, England and theatre interact by examining research papers, novels, essays, and first-hand accounts from those who have visited before is nothing to one’s own experience of the city. When I arrived in London, England at Gatwick Airport, in order to get to my destination, Queen Mary, I had to take a train and it was the view from the train that struck me first. As the train slowly pushed through the countryside, small communities lingered in my sight line. Graffiti, crumbling infrastructure, and overgrown plant life filled my view until I entered the city at Victoria Union Station. These communities did not receive the benefit of the tourism that has transformed the London city centre. As the train trekked deeper into the heart of London, lots of scaffolding entombed buildings and cranes littered the skyline. From this image I learned that the city is always changing, building on the ground and legacy that came before. London, England is a hub for monumental historic and theatrical spaces.

While travelling in the underground subway stations, I was astonished by the abundance of advertisements promoting shows. This abundance is lacking in London, Ontario. In London, England there are theatres considered to be West End, some outside of West End, and another dozen belonging to the off West End category. Each day and night there is a large quantity of shows to be seen. There is such an abundance that there are small shops/kiosks selling tickets at a discount the day of the performance to fill the thousands of seats belonging to the many theatres in London. As the class explored the city, Professor Kidnie explained to me that theatre was playing a significant part in urban regeneration. The relationship between the city and theatre is what interested me most. London and its theatre culture were deeply intertwined and woven in such a way that it is inescapable like the oxygen we breathe.

The area which I would like to closely examine is the environment and location around the National Theatre, and the re-constructed Globe Theatre that has drawn millions of viewers and Shakespeare enthusiasts from across the globe. As I walked along the Southbank of London, England I saw food trucks, lounge chairs, coffee shops, monuments, benches, restaurants, and play spaces for young children such as an elongated sandbox. Children can climb up a bright orange sculpture that can also be used as a slide. A colourful carousel dominated a small portion of the Southbank, and not far from that there was a skatepark covered in layers of graffiti. Professor Kidnie explained that twenty years before, the now thriving skatepark that allows individuals to explore their own creativity with graffiti and push their skateboarding skills further, was home to countless homeless people underneath the overpass. Row after row of individuals living in poorly constructed outdoor places of residence. However, as theatre and the arts continued to grow on the Southbank, there became no place for these individuals who had no home in this area. Those who had called the area home for an extended period of time were pushed out by commercial spaces taking advantage of the theatre goers nearby. When theatre transforms spaces, in some circumstances it does not benefit the local communities and the individuals that live within it. The area becomes condensed with tourists and commercial shops are pursued instead of pushing for more affordable housing and/or resources for those who are disadvantaged. Theatre’s transformative nature can be beneficial if they communicate with the community and focus on goals for educational opportunities, inclusivity, and support for those who need it most.

The Power Struggle: Modernization vs Replication

Studying theatre has always been an interest of mine, but I never thought to consider theatre as more than a performance on a stage before a hopeful audience. Since reading Palgrave’s Theatre & series, I’ve been reminded to keep an open mind towards, not only what theatre is, but what it has the potential to be. The proceedings in a court room, a sacred religious ceremony, or even a lecture from a professor are examples of performances in the real world.

Since taking the Destination Theatre course I’ve been observant of events in my life that have performative aspects. Since arriving in England, I have immersed myself in London’s rich and ubiquitous theatre scene. So far, I’ve seen sensational shows like Young Frankenstein, Witness for the Prosecution, and A Winter’s Tale. By the end of our 14-day adventure we’ll have seen a whopping ten performances in different theatres, but hundreds of performances by ordinary people within the city.

A recurring complication of the performances in London is the persistent power struggle between a replicated production and one that will please the majority – the tourists. Whether these presentations are within a theatre or in the real-world there is an unceasing desire to please the high-paying consumers. With this desire comes the decision to reproduce original performances or modernize them. This decision can severely influence the audience’s reaction towards a performance.

Two productions from this trip are highlighted in my memory when it comes to modernizing an English performance. The changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and AWinter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre undertook the challenge of modernization with some success and failure.

A Winter’s Talein the Globe Theatre was a performance accompanied by high expectations following our day of extensive programming concerning the elaborate costumes and theatres within the facility. The Globe Theatre is a reproduction of the original Elizabethan playhouse that was destroyed by fire in 1613. The Globe’s desire to replicate most aspects of Shakespeare’s vision is present, but the reality of a budget often takes precedence and impedes their efforts. Employees continue to make a valiant effort to ensure visitors have an authentic experience of the Globe, but in the case the case of their production of A Winter’s Talethe authenticity was almost completely lost in their efforts to modernize a Shakespearean classic. The production used modern-day clothing and props in order to differentiate members of the cast from Bohemia and Sicilia, but I personally found that this decision restricted my comprehension of the entire show.

In contrast, the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace was a huge success for all audiences looking for an authentic and modern mix of an English production. The performance started with the traditional guard routine followed by two English marching bands that presented perfected pieces. And to my surprise, one of those pieces was “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. The use of this song allowed most of the audience, especially younger spectators, to connect to an element of the long traditional ceremony. I personally felt the performance maintained a perfect balance of authenticity and modern entertainment.

I believe that maintaining the authenticity of a performance is the surest way to achieve success. In the case of the Changing of the Guards ceremony, a small modern twist captivated the attention of audience members of all ages. As for the production of A Winter’s Tale, their attempt to modernize a classic led to an overall degradation of the quality of their production.

 

The Jokes’ Asses––regarding Chicago (London, Pheonix Theatre, 2018)

Consider: satire might be thought of as a sardonic, refractive social commentary––a beam of taint-light, say, cast from a writer, toward and against and from a mirror, and into an audience’s delighted eyes. But we sometimes forget that the subject of satire is us, the audience; we are derided and ridiculed by the satirical play; we are seen and scorned (and chuckle). We are the jokes’ asses. (“Hey, suckers,” Roxie begins Act II, rippling a giggle through the crowd.) And to those whom, after laughter mellows, reflection pursues, witnessing satire seems to be a healthy process, like––should artists be the immune system of society’s body––the inflammation, or aches, or boils of an embodied disease illuminating itself with agglutinations of white blood cells.

Through the lens of this performance of Chicago, and with a little knowledge of recent American history, that hill-top city seems to have inverted into a dark pit writhing with lustful, celebrity-worshipping, uncritical fools. (The satire’s perfect audience, then, likewise bears these adjectives.) The pit’s ribbed with falling tributaries of snake-oil, eddies of hucksterish priests, outcrops of beleagured proletariats, anonymous housewives, congested jails, and battered ideals––today thinkable-of as fragments broken from Plymouth Rock (which type of rock, by the way, typifying the mammoth contrast between America’s words and America’s deeds, is poetically called glacial erratic)–– as well as host to, lest we forget, sitting as the current comma upon the sentence of the world, a president most personally recognizable to the populace as a fucking reality-show host.

“It’s all showbiz,” says Billy Flynn, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.––a hollywood actor, remember, best known for the line (which he’s doubtless heard multiply daily barked through him by (in?)complete strangers in the film celebrity-crazed America we know and regret) “SHOW ME THE MONEY!”––who, himself, perhaps, upon the extended self-reflection and critical awareness of one’s impression on public consciousness caused by past work, which is perhaps necessary to empower a serious actor’s trajectory, epitomizes the performance (con-)artist playing to an obliviously enrapt American audience, regarding whom Flynn asks, “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”.

Casting Gooding Jr., outclassed as a singer though he was, strung a rope ladder, festooned with tributaries of snake oil, from the pit’s lip to its nadir.

And perhaps American audiences, perhaps even global audiences, have opted for sequins because humans need belief, require fiction, to exist. We evolved, after all, into our unique capacity to navigate, bludgeon, and beautify ‘our’ world by means of the languages we developed to tell stories, to reflect the world we inhabited, through narratives which prepared us for the infinite set of dangers and pains we would face therein. And so story we innately prefer––aware as we are of our susceptibility to death, to the pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office––to reality.

Story, then, we used to avoid the variety of fatal traps our mortal coils couldn’t govern. No wonder that we ended with story’s fullest evolution, fantasy, and were depicted in this production as boiling in the kind of deadly trap we first took shape to avoid.