Captured in an award-winning shot Alex was rescued from Rwanda and adopted by the man behind the lens. Back from uni and returning to where she was raised the distance between father and daughter stretches taut. In the dark room of a Hampstead home a long hidden secret is slowly exposed in a flash of revelation.
Vivienne Franzmann’s new play is a piercing and dark thriller of modern morals.
This is Vivienne Franzmann’s second play. Her first play Mogadishu opened at the Royal Exchange, Manchester last year to critical acclaim, winning the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition and also won the George Devine Award in 2010.
Simon Godwin will direct. This season he is also directing Goodbye to All That as part of the Young Writers Festival. His credits here also include The Acid Test by Anya Reiss and Wanderlust by Nick Payne. His other credits include Faith Healer and Far Away at Bristol Old Vic, The Winter’s Tale for Headlong and the Nuffield Theatre Southampton, Mister Heracles at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. As Associate Director of the Royal and Derngate Theatres in Northampton under Artistic Director Rupert Goold, Simon directed seven main stage shows.
Running time 2hrs 5mins incl. one interval
The Witness is part of the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights programme, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.
Vivienne Franzmann’s commission was supported by funds from the Olivier Foundation
Join in the conversation @ Twitter #thewitness
Select a Date
Dates in June
|Fri 1 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 2 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Wed 6 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 7 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 7 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Concessions Available, Preview Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Fri 8 Jun 2012||7:00pm||Press Night||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 9 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 9 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Concessions Available||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Mon 11 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Tue 12 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Wed 13 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 14 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 14 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Fri 15 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 16 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 16 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Mon 18 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Tue 19 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Wed 20 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 21 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 21 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Fri 22 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 23 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 23 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Mon 25 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Tue 26 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Post-Show Talk||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Wed 27 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Captioned Performance||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 28 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Mid-Week Matinee||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Thu 28 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Fri 29 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 30 Jun 2012||3:30pm||Concessions Available, Saturday Matinees||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
|Sat 30 Jun 2012||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs||£20|
Sold out Performances
5 stars The Times by Libby Purves, 11 June 2012
A daughter home from Cambridge with a rucksack; a widowed father running to seed in Hampstead, teased for his cheese-and-Kit Kat habit and laughing at her gift of a college hoody. So far so familiar, right down to the comfortably aged living-room carpet. They’re fond of one another in an exasperated, flippant way. They mock, have tickle fights, quarrel about loud music. She has dropped out of university: also familiar. He is white, she black, clearly an adopted child. Still well-trodden themes: Englishness, subtle racism, all that.
But no. Vivienne Franzmann’s new play lies in the tradition of Arthur Miller, moving us gradually towards the edge of a yawning chasm, a modern horror. He was a famous war photographer, who in 1994 saved the baby girl from a pile of her murdered Rwandan relatives. He has retired and is resisting a retrospective exhibition; she, on the other hand, increasingly wants to know and visit her motherland and to have his work as a witness celebrated. Against his will she begins sorting through old slides, and what she finds bewilders her. There are bad secrets.
In a play whose depth, compassion and courage eclipses by far the success of her Bruntwood-winning Mogadishu, Franzmann unravels the layers of their story with such fine restraint and psychological insight that it would be a crime to tell you more. Except that Pippa Bennett-Warner (who was Jacobi’s Cordelia and Eddie Redmayne’s Queen at the Donmar) gives a touching, sometimes funny, utterly believable rendering of the teenage Alex. Danny Webb is perfect as her dissipated, guilty, conflicted father, and a third player — David Ajala, in the second act — brings a likeable, courteous African strangeness. He has one particular line that gripped me by the throat.
The living-room set where we perch intimately above bookshelves or alongside stairs is brilliantly executed in the round by Lizzie Clachan, and used with skill by the director Simon Godwin. There are snatches of real daytime TV and radio (including a burst of Midweek, rapidly switched to 6 Music) and, at one point, a neighbour’s live chicken. But for all its close-devised naturalism, this triumphant play is no common middle-class drama. It handles great and complex moral, racial, philosophical and family issues. Better still, in an age of stylised, in-yer-face dramas about the dark side, here the three characters are so truthfully, wittily, endearingly written that you believe in them utterly and wish them redemption. To which, despite a bleak enough ending, Franzmann’s door is not entirely closed.
5 stars Evening Standard by Fiona Mountford, 12 June 2012
It’s audacious to make such a prediction in mid-June but I’ll go for it anyway: if there is a finer new play than The Witness this year, I’ll be astonished. Vivienne Franzmann, Evening Standard Award-nominated for her debut Mogadishu last year, proves a master handler of both mood and tension, as she worries thrillingly at ideas of family and belonging.
Alex (Pippa Bennett-Warner, one of our best young acting talents) has dropped out of Cambridge, a fact she has kept hidden from widowed father Joseph (Danny Webb). Adopted as a child in war-ravaged Rwanda, Alex, who featured in photographer Joseph’s harrowing award-winning image of the conflict, is struggling to discover her own identity. Bright but disgruntled, she slouches about their well-heeled Hampstead home, which in Lizzie Clachan’s wonderful in-the-round design wraps itself luxuriantly around the audience.
The first half is a masterful two-hander of simmering tensions, as Joseph struggles to comprehend why his daughter would consider rejecting the life of Western comfort he has offered her. We could watch Bennett-Warner and Webb all night but the stakes shoot up in the second half with the arrival of a visitor from Rwanda. Cultural currents crash against each other, with director Simon Godwin marshalling skilfully. It’s outstanding stuff, and if the BBC had any gumption, they’d film it instantly as a Play for Today.
4 stars The Daily Mail by Quentin Letts, 12 June 2012
War photographers are a reckless bunch. The ones I have known have been a mixture of bravery, compassion, street wisdom and, perhaps in some cases, a touch of madness.
In Vivienne Franzmann’s punchy new play The Witness, Joseph (Danny Webb) is a 60-something lensman who has been in many of the world’s trouble spots since Vietnam.
While working in Rwanda he came across a village where almost everyone had been murdered by drunken soldiers.
Amid the bodies Joseph discovered a little girl. He rescued her and brought her back to Hampstead, where he and his (late) wife reared her.
Alex, as she is now called, has turned into an impressive teenager who has secured a place at Cambridge University. She is played with assurance by Pippa Bennett-Warner.
Playwright Franzmann wonders what would happen if such a young woman would, like some routinely adopted children, seek her roots. If she did, how would her English father react, particularly if a visitor from Rwanda (David Ajala) turned up?
It is hard to say much more without giving away the plot of this clever, gripping but occasionally underwritten tale.
I say ‘underwritten’ because there are some conversations you feel would surely have been held which, here, we are not shown.
Along the way the play deftly notes some of the hypocrisies of liberal Westernism and the way we perhaps like to play God with lives in war-torn Africa. Is Joseph as decent a man as he initially seems to be?
Meanwhile, what exactly does the visitor from Rwanda want? Money? Power? The very shirt off the back of Alex’s saviour? Or simply his natural dues?
One problem, for me, is the bad language used by Joseph in the presence of his adopted daughter.
You could argue that this is a representation of Western decadence. Maybe it is, but here it feels simply like an attempt by the author to show off. It just doesn’t ring true.
In one scene, where Joseph has had too much to drink, the swearing is entirely justified – but by then it has lost its power because we have heard so much of it wasted on trivia before.
Without the sillier profanities, this already noble, inventive and strongly acted play would be even better and more saleable.
4 stars The Telegraph by Charles Spencer, 12 June 2012
Vivienne Franzmann, a former teacher, won rave reviews and awards for her first play, Mogadishu, which exposed the pressures and racial tensions in a sink school in London. After such success, coming up with that notoriously difficult second play must have been an even bigger challenge than usual. But Franzmann triumphantly proves she is no one-hit wonder. The Witness is powerful, original and deeply moving. It is also something of a moral thriller, so forgive me if I tread somewhat gingerly around the plot.
The play is set in the comfortable Hampstead home of Joseph, a famous former war photographer who has been psychologically scarred by his experiences and now contents himself with taking wedding pictures. One of his most famous shots is of a young girl screaming for her mother during the Rwandan massacres. The lens-man rescued her and adopted her and at the start of the play the apparently happy and well balanced Alex has just returned home after her first year at Cambridge.
Things aren’t quite as rosy as they seem, however. It turns out that Alex has dropped out of university, and is now intent on coming to terms with her traumatic past in Rwanda, much to her father’s concern. And then Simon arrives, claiming to be her brother, and another survivor of the massacre where Joseph took his famous, harrowing photograph.
The play uncovers tensions and lies between the characters, and the morality of those who travel the world in search of shots of human misery. Are they important witnesses to man’s inhumanity to man, or are their methods and motivation more murky?
The play grips throughout in a superb production by the outstanding young director Simon Godwin. Lizzie Clachan’s ingenious design makes the audience feel like voyeurs, perched above bookcases and on the stairs, and the acting is flawless. Danny Webb is brilliantly persuasive as a buccaneering photographer damaged by what he has witnessed, yet a deeply loving father to his adopted daughter.
Pippa Bennett-Warner brings a raw vulnerability to the girl he rescued from Rwanda, while David Ajala combines moments of righteous anger with fascinatingly enigmatic motivation as the young Rwandan in search of his sister.
In its combination of pain, dark humour, and powerful plotting, The Witness confirms Franzmann as a dramatist of outstanding gifts and promise.
4 stars The Financial Times by Ian Shuttleworth
Last year Vivienne Franzmann’s classroom drama Mogadishu announced her as a playwright not just to watch, but to watch keenly and with absorption. Her second play, The Witness, intensifies that sense. I cannot remember when last I saw a play that was so open and direct without also descending periodically into crassness.
The play’s press release describes it as a thriller of modern morals “set against the deep background of the Rwandan genocide”, to which the natural response is “deep background . . . yeah, right”. But it is true: the dramatic impulse of this three-hander comes not from the genocide, but from responses to it and to its consequences, each on a human scale.
Joseph is a celebrated war photographer, now semi-retired and almost in hiding from his own past; Alex, whom Joseph and his wife (since deceased) adopted after rescuing her from the scene of a Rwandan massacre, is as the play opens apparently returning to their home in Hampstead, north London, from her first year at university in Cambridge. The third character, Simon, appears after the interval; he is Alex’s brother, reunited with her for the first time since that childhood ordeal.
The second hour of the play maps Alex’s (and our) initial uncertainties over Simon’s bona fides, then Joseph’s increasing insecurities as the truth emerges about that crucial moment. Even the two sizeable secrets revealed during this act seem to emerge not for reasons of dramatic convenience but as an organic product of the characters’ moods and interactions.
Danny Webb is terrific as Joseph: blunt, jaded, occasionally inappropriate in his relationship with Alex but not culpably so. He allows his unreason to well up as he flakes with jealousy over Simon’s increasing closeness to his daughter. As Alex, Pippa Bennett-Warner is a match for Webb. Her first-act speech about sitting in a Cambridge lecture when suddenly confronted with a photograph of herself as an infant, and having to deal with both her own and others’ responses to it, is a marvellous piece of writing, delivered with quiet intensity and not an atom overdone. David Ajala as Simon has a job to keep up with his fellows.
Lizzie Clachan’s comfortable in-the-round living-room set has its seating steeply raked, giving just a hint of courtroom as we in turn witness how both personal and global history can be fabricated.
4 stars Time Out by Stewart Pringle, 12 June 2012
London teacher-turned-writer Vivienne Franzmann follows up the brilliant state school drama ‘Mogadishu’ with a more compact and forceful new play, in which the atrocities of Rwandan genocide splinter against the complacency of a bijou Hampstead living room.
Joseph is a war photographer who adopts the subject of his finest work, a young Rwandan girl, renamed Alex, who he found cowering on a mound of corpses. He steals her away to give her a new life, far from the pain and horror, raising her alone after her mother dies. But their bond is fatally fractured by the revelation of important details which have been cropped from the picture.
Danny Webb avoids all the easy answers in his complex portrayal of Joseph, a man whose complacent belief in his own decency masks an ocean-trench of repressed guilt. But Franzmann’s script has greater ambitions. Her two-hour three-hander is a tight family drama, flecked with vicious dark comedy. But it also bravely faces the question of how we can live contentedly in a world where such appalling horrors happen: how we can buy artisan cheeses on the internet, watch ‘Loose Women’ or even live in Kent without tearing ourselves apart.
There are a couple of heavy-handed twists and the gears take a few scenes to bite, but Simon Godwin’s patient direction and a detailed set by Lizzie Clachan keep the plot’s more extravagant convolutions under control. With a focus that makes her Bruntwood Prize-winning debut look almost laboured, ‘The Witness’ is the tragedy of a terrible man who, as Franzmann gradually and agonizingly shows us, is no worse than most of us.
4 stars The Independent by Paul Taylor, 13 June 2012
The device of photographic flash at the start of a scene has become a regular and sometimes lazily used method of punctuation in productions of new plays.
It has a genuine thematic purpose, though, in this sharply focused, in-the-round staging by Simon Godwin of ‘The Witness’, Vivienne Franzmann’s powerful and morally discomfiting follow up to ‘Mogadishu’, her award winning debut in 2011.
The protagonist of the new piece is the widowed, out-of-condition, Joseph Potter (an excellent Danny Webb), once an acclaimed war-photographer of Don McCullin calibre but currently on-the-run from his renown and loath to permit a grand retrospective exhibition of his work. At the start, he is confronted by another drop-out: his 19-year-old adopted daughter Alex (beautifully played by Pippa Bennett-Warner), who has abandoned her place at Cambridge.
As a baby, she was the heart-rending, living centre of his award-winning shot of a Rwandan church piled high with the corpses of the slaughtered. Now, after a happy upbringing in Hampstead, this highly intelligent young woman has succumbed to a crisis of identity, complexly connected to that famous image of her.
Webb and Bennett-Warner splendidly communicate the jokey-combative, temperamental but tender relationship between the rumpled, raffishly worldly Joseph, and the emotionally confused Alex, bent on visiting her homeland. Matters are brought to an increasingly ugly head, though, when, after an email, David Ajala’s dignified but determined Simon flies in from Rwanda, claiming to be Alex’s brother.
It’s not just that a jealous competitiveness over his daughter reduced the likeable, anxious Joseph to foul, if insincere, racist abuse. The play’s title refers to the brother as well as the photographer. He also bore witness to what happened in that church and his accusations raise intractably difficult questions about how far it is ever valid to crop and rearrange the truth in the alleged interests of a higher good. It is, of course, possible that Joseph was motivated by crusading zeal, personal ambitions and a guilty conscience and by protectiveness as well as possessiveness in arguably doing to Alex’s sense of herself what he did to the photograph. The ending, which leaves you grappling with a lump in your throat, magnanimously allows you to come to this conclusion.
There are one or two niggling details that don’t quite ring true and there is a faintly schematic feel to the proceedings but, by and large, Franzmann has triumphantly circumvented the problems presented by “second play syndrome”.
4 stars The Mail on Sunday by Georgina Brown, 17 June 2012
At the Royal Court in London another gripping ethical thriller, The Witness, is unravelling. Vivienne Franzmann’s debut play, Mogadishu, was set in a mixed-race school where pupils fought with one another as well as with the teachers. It was more like a war zone, hence the title. The Witness tightens the focus on a father and daughter and also widens it to raise rich and complex issues about race and roots, journalistic morality, guilt and family. She even throws a live chicken into the mix.
Alex (a moving Pippa Bennett-Warner), home in Hampstead after her first year at Cambridge, is teasing her recently widowed father, Joseph (a damaged and delightful Danny Webb), about his unhealthy diet and addiction to Loose Women on the TV.
She’s not impressed to see that he now cheerfully takes wedding snaps having once been a celebrated photojournalist whose images of massacre and brutality had earned him acclaim. He had snatched Alex as a baby from a pile of corpses in a church in Rwanda – which included her mother, who had been raped, and her mutilated father – and won an award for his photographs of the scene.
She wants him to stage a retrospective of his work and when she’s searching through his slides she discovers another figure in his most famous photograph that had been cropped from the printed image. Joseph had, until now, been known as the solitary witness of this atrocity but, it seems, someone else had witnessed Joseph’s involvement, which, let’s just say, alters the picture somewhat. Can his action be justified?
Simon Godwin’s superbly performed, moving and often suprisingly funny production in the round immerses us in the Hampstead house and makes voyeurs of us all.
Franzmann has not just created remarkably convincing characters, she also has you on the edge of your seat and makes you think, probably through tears. She’s a talent to watch.
The Independent by Kate Bassett, 17 June 2012
In The Witness, adopting a child proves no easy ride for Joseph, a war photographer who rescued the lone survivor of a massacre in Rwanda in the 1990s. He brought the baby girl, Alex, home and now she’s a Cambridge undergrad. But Joseph’s wife has died, uncomfortable truths have been cropped out of the picture, and Alex wants to investigate her roots.
In this impressive second play by Vivienne Franzmann, there are a few over-explanatory speeches, but the revelations are sharply disturbing. Simon Godwin’s production is beautifully acted, with nicely observed humour and mounting tension.
The Observer by Susannah Clapp, 17 June 2012
Pippa Bennett-Warner was vivacious in Caroline, or Change, velvet-voiced as Eddie Redmayne’s spouse in Richard II, self-contained and candid as Cordelia. Now she commands the stage in a big role. She does so with the ease that ensures her future. There are actresses (even actors) who are more flashy, who more obviously inflect every detail of a speech. PBW is completely natural. Audiences of course admire her: but they do something else, which is not always the same thing: they believe her.
What better test than The Witness, in which Bennett-Warner is one of only three actors on stage and there is really something at stake. Vivienne Franzmann had a success with her first play, Mogadishu. Her new play could easily have unwound predictably. It has at its centre a war photographer who has (no surprise) exploited his snapping opportunities, and his adopted Rwandan daughter – PBW – who (of course) does not realise that the massacre from which she was rescued may have been the occasion of a photo opportunity.
In outline The Witness sounds as if it will try to fire up politics with intimacy or inflate a relationship by setting it against the backdrop of an international crisis. Actually, it is quiet and truthful, concentrating on the small picture but not neglecting the larger, showing an intimacy that slowly unravels without being destroyed.
Danny Webb is strong and authentic as the working father whose breezy cockiness can crumple in seconds. David Ajala has the right bright ambiguity as the surprise visitor who is threat and hope – and something of a mystery. All these actors owe much to Simon Godwin’s tight direction, which encloses the audience from the beginning. Actually, before then. In what is becoming a Court Upstairs trademark, Lizzie Clachan’s design extends beyond the auditorium: you mosey into the theatre past a bookcase carrying volumes of National Geographic. You are there before you have started.
Fri 1 Jun, 7:45pm Sat 2 Jun, 7:45pm Wed 6 Jun, 7:45pm Thu 7 Jun, 3:30pm Thu 7 Jun, 7:45pm Sat 9 Jun, 3:30pm Sat 9 Jun, 7:45pm Thu 14 Jun, 3:30pm Sat 16 Jun, 3:30pm Thu 21 Jun, 3:30pm Sat 23 Jun, 3:30pm Thu 28 Jun, 3:30pm Sat 30 Jun, 3:30pm
Fri 1 Jun, 7:45pm Sat 2 Jun, 7:45pm Wed 6 Jun, 7:45pm Thu 7 Jun, 7:45pm
Thu 7 Jun, 3:30pm Thu 14 Jun, 3:30pm Thu 21 Jun, 3:30pm Thu 28 Jun, 3:30pm
Fri 8 Jun, 7:00pm
Sat 9 Jun, 3:30pm Sat 16 Jun, 3:30pm Sat 23 Jun, 3:30pm Sat 30 Jun, 3:30pm
Tue 26 Jun, 7:45pm
Wed 27 Jun, 7:45pm