Catch the conscience of the king

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Browsing the National Theatre’s bookshop recently, I noticed that the names of prominent playwrights placed on the A-Z shelves as landmarks for navigation now include Richard Norton-Taylor. The Guardian’s security affairs editor has now assembled half a dozen “tribunal” dramas based on transcripts of events, from the Nuremberg war crimes trials to the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. These have been staged at the Tricycle Theatre by its artistic director, Nicolas Kent, in a deliberately low-key style. Everything is as naturalistic as possible; the drama comes from the details of the testimony and our shared sense of the importance of the events dealt with.

It was, I suppose, a natural step from this to commissioning a tribunal in order to be dramatised. Called to Account is subtitled “The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the Crime Of Aggression Against Iraq: A Hearing”. A number of lawyers (ironically, from Matrix Chambers, whose members also include Blair’s wife) questioned various witnesses in an attempt to determine whether or not a war crimes prosecution against the prime minister might be viable. The “witnesses” included British and foreign politicians and diplomats such as Clare Short, former secretary of state for international development, Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defence Policy Board, and the former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

As ever in these plays, some impersonations are eerily accurate (Diane Fletcher as Short), some look or sound little like their originals but capture the essence of their character (Terrence Hardiman as Bob Marshall-Andrews MP) and some are quite self-effacing: William Hoyland always makes a useful man-in-a-suit, and plays two of them here, whereas Thomas Wheatley refrains from giving any strong personality to the “prosecutor”, Philippe Sands QC.

Individual turns of phrase leap out. Perle (played by Shane Rimmer), for instance, on whether the intelligence available in 2002-3 was sufficient to justify the use of force: “It was wrong, but it was adequate.” Or Edward Mortimer (Jeremy Clyde), Kofi Annan’s director of communications, on his response to news that the premises of some members of the UN Security Council might have been bugged during the quest for an authorising resolution: “I was shocked, rather in the sense of Claude Rains in Casablanca.”

One may seize on such moments with relief, as it takes some time to grasp the chronology of various meetings, minutes and statements on which the “prosecution” bases its case: that Blair had taken a decision to join the US at war as early as spring 2002, for the purpose of regime change rather than because of alleged weapons of mass destruction, and that he manipulated evidence in order to justify the campaign.

Herein lies the play’s potential problem. Although no “verdict” is given at the end of the 2½ hours (since this is not a trial but an inquiry to see whether, in Sands’ words, “there is a case for Mr Blair to answer”), what we hear seems immensely one-sided.

Whether this imbalance is due to the editing process (which, given Norton-Taylor’s record, I doubt), to the bias of those who chose to co-operate with the project, or to a real preponderance of evidence, is the question. In a discussion after the press night performance, chaired by the broadcaster Jon Snow and including the Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, the columnist David Aaronovitch averred that “this isn’t anything we didn’t already know”. Very little that’s new is brought to light, certainly, but this does not mean, as Aaronovitch implied, that it is futile to try to reach a meaningful conclusion.

This is theatre both as confected sensation and as direct civic engagement.

Tel 020 7328 1000

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.