Wedged uncomfortably into a narrow witness box beneath a row of multi-coloured box files crammed with contradictory statements, Johnny Depp did not occupy centre stage in court 13.
But the Hollywood actor was the focus of attention as the physically distanced courtroom drama unfolded, watched by lawyers and the media spread out over five separate courts at the Royal Courts of Justice.
The central expanse of the main, wood-panelled court was occupied only by the judge, Mr Justice Nicol, a few clerks, Depp himself and several barristers dispersed across the room to avoid the dangers of Covid-19 on the first day of the actor's libel trial against the Sun newspaper.
Depp is suing the Sun's publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), and its executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an article that called him a "wife beater" and referred to "overwhelming evidence" that he attacked his ex-wife Amber Heard (34), during their relationship, a charge that he strenuously denies.
Heard sat out of sight above in the public gallery, observing closely and preparing to give evidence in the coming days.
Depp (57), wore his hair long, down to his collar, occasionally sweeping it back from his face behind his glasses; he sported a narrow moustache and miniature goatee. In a dark suit, white shirt and black tie, he let his voice dip intermittently, forcing the judge to remind him to speak up and not answer questions merely with a nod.
He initially addressed Nicol as “Sir”, then corrected himself to say “My Lord”. Later he promoted the judge to an appreciative “Lord Chief”.
Viewed from a remote television screen in another court, Depp was at first hard to discern sitting in one corner of the room. Interventions by court ushers eventually swivelled the cameras to enable Depp to fill the remote screen. On one occasion the outlying courts lost their audio connection with the main hearing.
Depp’s deliberate, at times halting speech was in contrast to the volley of accusations fired out by the interrogating QC. Repeatedly accused of intemperate behaviour and readiness to resort to violence, he sometimes restricted himself to one-word answers; on other occasions he delved back into his memories.
The neo-Gothic corridors and decorated halls of the Royal Courts of Justice are impressive enough stage sets in normal times. Half deserted and echoing in the fading days of a pandemic, they provided an even more esoteric background to the sparring Hollywood actors.
While the court clerk wore blue plastic gloves to handle papers, the barristers, David Sherborne for Depp and Sasha Wass QC for the Sun, remained in traditional wigs and gowns.
Having played the lead in the 2007 musical film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Depp may not be entirely unfamiliar with surrounding area of London that was once home to the British press.
But his dislike of the paparazzi was apparent. In one sequence of cross-examination, he recounted wielding a wooden plank to keep photographers at bay when they tried to enter a restaurant where he was having dinner with his then pregnant girlfriend, Vanessa Paradis.
Depp is due to continue answering questions for three days, scrolling through witness statements, confessing past “emotional pains” and attempting to draw a clear line to demonstrate that his sometimes erratic behaviour stopped well short of domestic violence. – Guardian