Q&A with Jasper Britton about the ‘constantly evolving’ Witness for the Prosecution and the nightly pressures of convincing a live jury
Anthony Walker-Cook spoke with Jasper Britton, who plays Wilfrid Robarts in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, which is currently playing in the beautiful chamber of London’s County Hall.
AWC How long have you been with the show?
JB I started doing this at the end of November last year and it’s one of those companies who are all really aiming for the same outcome every night and it feels like real teamwork. They are all generous with their energy and concentration, and it pays off in the performance. I do admire them all a lot and we have a damned good time.
I was struck by how theatrical the courtroom setting of this show was – how do you prepare for this role?
That’s a good question, because our director Lucy Bailey kept saying ‘it’s got to be quicker’ and I kept asking ‘how?!’ But she’s right and it has taken a bit of time: the hard thing is to think ahead without sounding a bit glib. You need to be loading your next shot whilst taking one. You must not jump ahead and you need to delineate the thoughts. I found the court scene incredibly difficult to learn; for the first month I had all of the lines of the second act in my blue courtroom book. There’s no logic to it at points and some of Wilfrid Robarts’ traps are so completely without logic that it defeated me for a while. However, my tired old brain has managed to fortunately take it all on board.
We did go one evening to the Old Bailey to watch a little of a murder trial. I found it incredibly depressing as it was clear the accused was a bit lost – English was not his first language. We spoke with the judge afterwards, and she was gossipy and fascinating and wonderful. She gave us an insight into the excitement that comes with a lawyer’s life: they are like detectives in their own way, but everything is geared towards the jury. I am always trying to work on the jury each night into believing me.
I thought it was sweet that the jury actually takes notes! It was so British: they might have paid for a ticket but they are taking their job seriously!
They do take it seriously. We had a group of three girls in one night and they were the most attentive of any of our jurors. They were terrific. We had a real judge the other night and when I looked at her I knew: she was sitting like a casual bird of prey sizing up its next meal. To be under her gaze was quite intimidating, but I think I won her over by the end.
You said about Robarts laying his traps and it’s interesting you say ‘bird of prey’ since there is such a strong sense of him loving the thrill of the chase. Did you notice similarities between lawyers and yourself as an actor when you went to watch that court case?
Yes, I did. There are so many performative jobs, like teachers and lawyers. It was fascinating to watch the prosecution at the Old Bailey just slice away the defendant. I also thought how difficult it must be for the accused not to just admit they were guilty. There was a constant probing and a Shakespearean inevitability, which may sound quite grandiose, but there was the sense that this man was going to be found guilty and that it was inescapable. It had a terrible Tragedy to it, with a capital ‘T’, and it was a very uncomfortable place to be. I know a couple of barristers and they are hugely entertaining and a little bit mad in a wonderful way. They need real reserves of an inner strength; it’s tough, and probably little a tougher than being an actor.
Have you worked on other murder-mystery pieces before?
No, I don’t think I have. I did do Little Shop of Horrors…
I wouldn’t mind seeing that in London’s Country Hall Chamber…
Wouldn’t that be brilliant?!
The Chamber is a lovely place to go and see a show. How does murder mystery compare to other drama pieces?
In a way it is the same thing. There is a golden rule in acting that you don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning. You have to find a way of letting it surprise you every time. If it doesn’t surprise us it won’t surprise the audience. I think Lucy Bailey added to the twist ending with the blessing of the Agatha Christie estate, which means even those that know the story are in for a surprise at the end.
The mis-directions throughout are brilliant. The one I love is when he is consulted about going into the travel agency with a blond. But we best not say too much!
You’ve mentioned lawyers needing a reserving of something.What is Wilfrid Robarts’s reserve and why is he a good lawyer?
Lucy said to me that ‘we need to see a sparkling intelligence almost on the edge of madness’. We’ve worked together four times now and that sounds like a summary of our time together. I had to look at the words to see what I could find and I thought ‘what if he is a bit of a maverick’. Playing Wilfrid is like understanding all the different levels he is working at; the more I play him the more I realise how in one question he actually asks three. It’s something about that labyrinthine mind.
I also wanted the audience to be a little surprised at his introduction at his anarchism and exuberance. It’s a constantly-evolving thing. I throw the wig in the air at my joy of seeing Mr Mayhew. I wanted to make him an extreme person, or more than you might of thought, and it’s fun to do that.
How would you summarise the show in one word?
Can I say: scintillating, shocking, sexy, astounding, and audacious?
If you could choose one show from the past to see, what would it be?
What a very good question. I wish I’d seen…oh, there are so many! I wish I had seen Peter O’Toole in Macbethat the Old Vic in, I think, 1980: it was allegedly a terrible production, completely melodramatic and it sounded completely outrageous. But it was so popular. I did see O’Toole in Man and Superman at the Haymarket and it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
What do you enjoy about this production and the show?
It is an immersive show and the audience rather like being so close up to the audience. I sit next to somebody, whoever is in A2, during the court scene, and they are sometimes very shy or a bit frightened or very relaxed. I always say, ‘good evening’ and then gauge how they feel about that and have a slight chat with them at the beginning of Act 2. Myers [the other lawyer in the show played by William Chubb] would never say hi to anybody. Wilfrid is a terrible tart, really: he’ll say ‘hi’ to anybody. It’s great to work with Lucy, who is a maverick, and I do my best to serve her vision. It’s always good to be working and I’ve been able to meet old friends. My old French teacher, who I’ve not seen for twenty-three years, came to see me at a previous show, and that’s what’s brilliant about theatre. I just enjoy acting and taking on a challenge. There is something wonderful about the room itself. There is a mystery to it: it does something when we are all sitting together in the room.
Witness for the Prosecution is booking at London’s County Hall until September 2019.
Feature and production photographs by Ellie Kurttz.