When Vivienne Franzmann’s debut play Mogadishu premiered last year, it was commended for its emotive power, simultaneously reducing audiences to both tears and laughter. Now, back again with The Witness, the award-winning playwright conjures a similar whirlwind of emotion, which spirals around the Royal Court’s intimate Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in a tale of love, reunion and deceit.
The Witness tells the story of 19-year-old Alex whose childhood in Rwanda was torn apart by the cruel massacre of her family. Raised in London by the war photographer who captured the horrific scene and rescued her from the carnage, Alex discovers that the photograph, which made her adoptive father famous, reveals more about that tragic day than she originally thought.
What begins as a touching two-hander focusing on the beautifully tender relationship between a father and his daughter soon develops into a production that is rife with tension, as Simon, a miraculous addition to Alex’s life but to Joseph an unwelcome ghost from the past, brings destruction to their household.
From the beginning of the second half, David Ajala provides an unsettling presence as the ominous visitor, prising apart the deep-rooted bond the father and daughter have built. Danny Webb’s stand-out performance as Alex’s saviour and guardian powerfully fuses the virulent passion of a father who will do anything to protect his daughter with that all too familiar image of a dad who takes delight in embarrassing his offspring with renditions of their favourite musicians’ greatest hits.
Simon Godwin’s flawless direction adds dynamism to Franzmann’s moving script, as the actors utilise every corner of the multi-tiered set to portray the trio’s flying and changeable emotions, while Carolyn Downing’s effective sound design greets the transition between acts with the pertinent click of a camera, providing a constant reminder of what brought these three individuals together, and what is tearing them apart.
As Godwin’s memorable production draws to a close, it is Pippa Bennett-Warner’s emotionally-charged performance as the fiercely independent and unforgiving Alex that remains the most mesmerising, as she continues to wipe the tears from her face long after the final scene is over.