Fighting for real-life justice

Timothy Watson
Timothy Watson

As Timothy Watson says, the “law of sod” dictates that once you move near a theatre, you won’t ever work there. He can finally prove it’s not necessarily forever.

Tim, who has lived near Midhurst for the past 12 years, is at last making his Chichester Festival Theatre debut as the barrister Sir Robert Morton in Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (February 8-17).

For Tim, the pleasure is that he is working with a masterpiece: “I do think that occasionally actors and directors can have a tendency to think they can improve on something that needs no improving whereas in fact your job is simply to serve the play as well as you possibly can. I think in everything, you just have to go back to the script. If you come across a problem that you can’t solve, you have just got to look at the words and all the answers will be found within the text because writers know exactly what they are doing. Plays are not written in 24 hours or maybe not even in a couple of months. There is not a single word that hasn’t been thought about again and again. And there is nothing you could possibly improve about this. Your job is just to be humble in the face of the master.”

Based on the real-life Archer-Shee case, The Winslow Boy tells the story of the Winslow family and the fierce determination of the master of the house. Young cadet Ronnie Winslow is expelled from the Royal Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal order; his entire family is pulled apart by the repercussions. Set against the values of 1910 Edwardian London, the Winslow family fight to clear his name or face social ostracism as the case becomes a national scandal.

They bring in Sir Robert, the lawyer played by Tim – a character based on the most respected barrister of the day, Sir Edward Carson, brought in by the Archer-Shees.

“But apart from that historical basis, Rattigan dropped every other characteristic Edward Carson had. Carson was flamboyant and very emotional in court. Rattigan wanted someone who was quite cynical.”

A key scene in the play is the grilling that Sir Robert gives to Ronnie Winslow, a brutal cross-examination which aims to determine two things: whether the boy will stand up to similar cross-examination in court and whether he is in fact innocent. Sir Robert satisfies himself on both counts, but the examination is fierce: “He does it in a really rigorous way and makes himself unpopular, and I think that is something I appreciate as an actor, when you come across a character who is complicated, who doesn’t fit neatly into villain or romantic lead or whatever, but someone who goes on a very interesting journey. But he knows exactly what he is doing. It is just that he is quite egotistical and ambitious for himself and but also believes passionately in the importance of letting right be done, as opposed to justice. It is about getting the right solution. Justice is a legal term which is applied to the outcome of a court case, but it is not necessarily the same thing as the right thing. It is very easy to do justice, but doing right is very hard.”

The interest is also that the play allows us different perspectives on Sir Robert: “He has a sparring match with the daughter of the house who instantly doesn’t like him at all. She supports the women’s suffrage movement, and he is a high Tory opposed to it. But they meet a few times during the play and come out ultimately with a considerable respect for each other, which is another interesting aspect of Sir Robert’s journey.”