An Interview : Theatre Mill’s Witness for the Prosecution 2015

The production company Theatre Mill have the right kind of reputation on York’s theatre scene for staging gripping drama in creative and challenging spaces. Their forthcoming production, Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, summons audiences to the real courtrooms of York’s Guildhall and Leeds’ Civic Hall. Before the court is in session, director Samuel Wood, assistant director Tom Birch and actor Adam Elms tell us about how the company will be bringing their style of immersive and electric theatre to Christie’s classic story.

With this innovative production, Theatre Mill hold the title for the first ever site-specific performance of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. The company has a history for setting its productions in some of York’s most interesting and historic buildings, what exactly does the courtroom setting of York’s Guildhall mean for this play? “Working in a traditional theatre building, the play must come first,” replies Wood, “in an environment like [the Guildhall], the space dictates the kind of world you create. What we’re always chasing is the perfect marriage between play and space and of course, with this production we’re excited to able to set a courtroom drama within an actual courtroom.”

Theatre doesn’t often feel like a collaborative experience but I think it is

In the setting which Theatre Mill have chosen, the audience are completely immersed in the action and, willingly or not, they are cast as the jury. How does this immersive atmosphere works for such an intense production? “Theatre doesn’t often feel like a collaborative experience but I think it is,” Elms remarks, “we [as actors] absolutely need the audience as much as they need us.” Witness for the Prosecution, therefore, asks its audience to challenge themselves. “It’s always a gamble,” he elaborates further, “as some audience members are more invested than others. But, we hope, by the end of the show, they’ll have truly experienced a production like no other.” For Elms, the atmosphere of this production is also an unparalleled one to act in. “It’s electric… I think it would be hard to go back to a traditional theatre space after working on this production. By the end of the night you really feel there’s been a collaboration between us and the audience.”

Photo by Richard Moran
Photo by Richard Moran

The impact this real courtroom setting has on the performances of the actors is palpable. “When we first did [last year’s run of this production at the Guildhall] it felt like I was being thrown into the lion pit,” Elms laughs as he recalls, “because you can’t switch off for a second. But, I think that feeds you. You can work off the audience and they help to sharpen all these tools you have to use as an actor, like projection and movement. There’s no hiding.” Wood gestures to the floor, at which point I notice we are in fact sitting in a rehearsal room replica of the Guildhall’s courtroom. Our four chairs seem overcrowded within a thin aisle of performance space, in what is truly an intimate atmosphere. “The audience are surrounded and so are the actors,” reflects Wood, “traditional theatre spaces work hard to deny the presence of the audience. In surroundings like this and with genres like murder mystery, the nature of these asks the audiences to participate.” Indeed, this really is a close space for the actors to be working in as the team, something that Elms finds helpful because it “helps you get back to basics and to tell the story.” “You tend to switch off, as an audience member, if you feel yourself removed from the story. In this space, it’s easier for us and for them to show every detail of what’s happening.” Wood also comments on how Christie’s gripping story, too, fits the space and suits the immersive approach the company have taken; “The audience want to be complicit in the action and they want to form an opinion. It is a joy for us to see that happening. [During last year’s run] the audience were so comfortable they even began to vocalise those opinions, as the action was unfolding in front of them, in the courtroom!” With even the actors on occasion fighting to be heard, it sounds as if the atmosphere of the piece is really driving this production. “It keeps you on your toes and you almost have to play the roles like a comedian would play a crowd.” Elms adds, “you want to keep bringing everyone onto the same level of intensity, but once you get them onside, they’re with you all the way.”

The play has developed and grown over time, as well as from my own experience

With no two audiences reacting the same, I’m curious as to whether this production, as a revival, will look much different after a year. “Well, I’m new,” jokes Birch. This, he reveals, is his venture from the more traditional theatre space of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds to site-specific productions. Regarding the play itself however, Wood notes how Christie’s classic remains unaltered. “We haven’t messed around with the content of the drama, but mixing new actors into the company changes the production incredibly. The play has developed and grown over time, as well as from my own experience.” Here he details how he had, shortly after last year’s run, been commissioned for the colossal task of editing Agatha Christie’s canon of works for a project. “[After editing Christie’s works] I met this play with a new head on my shoulders. There’s a few new elements as well as the gripping story, one which I’ve never tired of after years of working on the play. For those who perhaps come back this year, the play changes shape and offers a chance to embrace the action and mastery of the play with a more analytical eye.” The company’s interaction with Agatha Christie’s massive estate doesn’t stop at Wood’s editorial role. Given Christie herself had always intended the play to be performed in a site-specific setting, Theatre Mill might just be bringing out the most important element of the story. “The estate had essentially been waiting about four or five decades for a company to set the play as we have, so we were excited to get their support for the production.”

Photo by Richard Moran
Photo by Richard Moran

Theatre Mill, it seems, are truly bringing this play into its element. Having held the same intense thrill for audiences for over 40 years and with their own production barely a year out of performance, I’m intrigued to hear what the team feel is keeping this play so gripping and fresh. “This is my first time working on the play, so in that sense for me it is a novelty.” Birch remarks. Wood agrees, saying “it’s been a blessing to have fresh eyes and new talent to reinvent the play.” For Elms, to return to this play feels not a rerun, but something like “déjà vu;” “I have noticed, this year, suddenly certain things feel a bit different and the team have brought up ideas that I might have never thought of the first time around.” For Wood, what has kept this play exciting and electric comes down to the invitation which murder mysteries offer to the audience. “Everyone ventures their opinions and this creates a culture which just breeds ideas.” The team start to reminisce over times they had gone incognito to listen among audience members’ theories during the interval and they certainly thrive on knowing their production inspires this inquisitive and vocal attitude towards theatre. “It’s really exciting,” Birch gleams, “to stage a production which invites people to guess, and to keep guessing.”

*Theatre Mill is currently looking for juries to solve this murder mystery. To ensure justice be served, be the jury in York from the 17th June to 12th July or in Leeds, from the 28th July to 30th August. Tickets can be purchased here.

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