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Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be treated to theatre tickets for Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. The setting – London’s County Hall – was exquisite, the play sublime and the actors fabulous. An afternoon of sheer escapism, even for a die hard Christie fan like myself. Having read the short story/play many times is no replacement for seeing this on the stage. The theatre offers the opportunity to see the action from all perspectives; you can put yourself in the shoes of the defendant, the court actors and of course, the witnesses. Such a perspective vividly demonstrates the immense power of the State, not only through physical violence (although this is also evident) but through verbal dexterity. To see the defendant – Leonard Vole – on trial; so small and defenceless against the majesty of the courtroom, is thought provoking. Furthermore, this environment is staffed by legal professionals, who unlike him, understand the world in which they operate. The cut and thrust of legalistic argument performed in the play (and in modern day courts daily) conceals the sheer ferocity of authority’s attack on the individual. Remember at the time the play was written, the death penalty was still in force, and Leonard Vole is on trial for the capital crime of murder. In essence, he is openly fighting for his very life, but subjected to the machinations and mediation of professionals who openly profess to be seeking justice. When he tries to speak, to argue, to cajole, he is silenced. There is no place for the defendant’s perspective unless it is expressed via the mandated professional who speaks on his (or her) behalf.
In the twenty-first century (and indeed, for the latter part of the twentieth century), capital punishment in the UK has not been a sentencing option. Whilst defendants may not be faced with a possible date with the hangman, the finality of sentencing and punishment is no laughing matter. Whilst there is no doubt that dramatic denouements have their place in the theatre, in the serious business of the criminal courts such antics seem out of place. If we look at the criminal court as a theatrical scene, we start to observe all manner of incongruity (cf. Carlen, 1976). For starters; the language used and the costumes worn. For anyone that has ever grappled to understand the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë’s, such reading requires patience and perseverance to understand the beauty of such writing. In 2018, we would not request that our surgeons operate on us without the benefit of anaesthesia, neither would we want to be treated with procedures such as bloodletting or trepanning. Similarly, we don’t expect soldiers to carry muskets or form into schiltrons just because that’s how it used to be. Yet we accept and arguably, expect our courts to run as if they were stuck in time. What chance does the individual defendant have in this archaic, theatrical setting? After all, they are the star of the show, yet they have neither costume, nor the opportunity to learn their lines. It is hard to argue, that such practices are conducive to the pursuit of justice.
On the surface, going to the theatre appears to offer a pleasurable break from academia, yet the reality is it offers the opportunity to consider criminology from a novel perspective. Reading (and you all know how keen I am on reading!!) is only part of Criminology; talking, listening, thinking and exploring away from the classroom are equally important. My advice; get out, explore – the arts; theatre, cinema, literature, museums – and add this experiential knowledge to your academic studies. See things from a different perspective and unleash your Criminological Imagination (Young, 2011).
Carlen, Pat, (1976), ‘The Staging of Magistrates’ Justice,’ The British Journal of Criminology, 16, 1: 48–55
Christie, Agatha, (2018), Witness for the Prosecution, Directed by Lucy Bailey. London County Hall, [11 February 2018]
Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity)