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An interview with actor Catherine Steadman

29 September 2017 Will Rathbone

Catherine Steadman is a young British actor with a CV that spans TV, theatre and film. Though perhaps best known for her role in Downton Abbey, Steadman has been twice nominated for an Olivier for her stage work. Once as part of the ensemble for That Face at that Royal Court, and then as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the RSC’s Oppenheimer. She is currently in rehearsals for Witness for the Prosecution, an Agatha Christie play staged in London County Hall. London Calling spoke to Steadman about the unusual production, and Christie’s lasting appeal.

London Calling: Good afternoon Catherine! Thank you very much for speaking to us today. Please could you start by telling us a little bit about Witness for the Prosecution, and your role in it?
 
Catherine Steadman: Witness for the Prosecution is an Agatha Christie adaptation. The central character, Leonard Vole, is on trial for the murder of a woman he became friendly with over the course of six weeks. There is a lot of conflicting evidence, and the witnesses have very clear prejudices. There’s a constant battle in the audience’s mind, right up until the very last scene, as to whether or not he murdered her and who can be trusted.
 
I play Romaine Vole, Leonard’s wife. She’s German, and the play is set in 1952 when having a German wife was not a particularly fashionable thing to do. Romaine is not a very sentimental person. She grew up during the Second World War, she’s seen a lot of the bad things that people can do, and she’s not very trusting. She’s very straightforward, and doesn’t understand the fusty British way of tiptoeing round subjects. Both Romaine and Leonard are very modern for the 1950s. The young people in this play are very much on the cutting edge – they’re just about to break into the sixties – and the play has an “old vs. new” element as well.


Catherine Steadman
 
LC: Is that something that Lucy Bailey [the director] added?
 
CS: Yes – both William Dudley [the designer] and Lucy wanted to keep the whole thing very immediate and alive. It’s going to be dangerous, a bit more brutal, and the stakes are high. It’s not “tea and cakes” and “whodunit”: there’s the real possibility a man will be hung (which would happen immediately after the trial in those days) and we look at the reasons people might want that. Sex, lies, love and money – all very universal, topical themes!
 
LC: The setting for the play is really interesting – how do you think having the audience so close will affect the production?
 
CS: The play is being staged in County Hall and the audience will be in the jury seats of a courtroom. It will function as a working courtroom, with atmospheric sound effects and lighting, and the ushers playing a part. Everything will happen right in front of the audience, they’ll watch the whole thing unfold around them, and it will be very immersive. We’re really lucky to be able to rehearse on the stage for a full fortnight, which is unheard of in London!


The Chamber in London County Hall. Image Credit: Helen Maybanks
 
LC: How are rehearsals going?
 
CS: They’re really fun! We made a very clear path in terms of the maze of the play. Working out who knows what, and at what stage they know, is really difficult!
 
LC: I imagine the cast have to be totally sure of all those details for the audience to have any hope of keeping up.
 
CS: Absolutely! The audience can put two and two together during the big payoff at the end, but we have to know whether we’re lying or telling the truth from the very first scene. Although that sounds easy, it’s actually very intricate to work out because Agatha’s writing is so clever. Who knows what, why they know it, where that means they were on the day and how they saw something – it’s a bit like doing a cryptic crossword!
 
LC: What do you think makes Agatha Christie’s appeal so enduring?
 
CS: She was very thorough – everything is there for a reason – and her plots are really intricate. I think that’s why people enjoy her so much: it’s just fantastic writing. There was a TV adaptation of Witness at Christmas, but that was from the original short story, which is completely different to ours. The short story takes place after the First World War and has a completely different ending. Even if the audience know the story, they won’t know which ending we’re doing!


Catherine Steadman
 
LC: As a Londoner, what are some of your favourite places?
 
CS: Jidori, a Japanese yakitori restaurant on Kingsland Road, is really tasty and 69 Colebrook Row is great for cocktails. I love going to galleries: I’m a member of the Tate and a big fan of the Royal Academy. This summer I’ve been doing a lot of outdoor swimming, in Hampstead ponds or the Serpentine. You don’t have to wait until the lido’s open; you can just go down to the swimming area at any time of year – if you’re brave enough!
 
LC: What’s on your cultural radar at the moment?
 
CS: I’m trying to read a book a week this year, but I’m lagging behind slightly. Right now I’m reading Lincoln in the Bardo, which is brilliant, and I just finished The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer and was fantastic. The Power, a novel where women can create electric shocks, is great. It asks what it would be like if women were more powerful than men, and is really fun reading!
 
Catherine Steadman stars in Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall, SE1 7PB, from 6 October till 11 March. Tickets from £10.
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