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William Hoyland, playing a civil servant in "Called to Account," Tricycle Theatre, London (2007). Photo: Tristram Kenton

Crimes of the P.M.
By Terry Stoller

Called to Account: The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the Crime of Aggression Against Iraq: A Hearing
Edited by Richard Norton-Taylor
The Tricycle Theatre
269 Kilburn High Road
Box office: 020-7328-1000


The Tricycle Theatre in northwest London, which has been staging verbatim government inquiries since 1994, this year initiated its own investigation. Director Nicolas Kent enlisted two lawyers, Philippe Sands and Julian Knowles, to hold hearings in January and February 2007 on the question: is there a basis for indicting Tony Blair as a war aggressor? Edited by Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor, who has compiled most of the Tricycle’s verbatim plays, the proceedings have become its latest tribunal play: Called to Account: The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the Crime of Aggression Against Iraq: A Hearing.

Testimony for Called to Account is drawn from voluntary sources inside and outside government. The eleven witnesses who appear onstage include Richard Perle, chair of a Pentagon advisory group during the leadup to the war in Iraq; former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter; an Iraqi Kurd living in Britain; a Chilean ambassador to the U.N.; British journalists and officials; Tory and Labour Members of Parliament, most notably Clare Short, now an Independent Labour M.P. who in spring 2003 resigned her Cabinet post.

A key issue in the play is the advice of Blair’s Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, on the legality of going to war, which seemed to change over a ten-day period in March 2003, easing the path to war. Other concerns explored: whether the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was manipulated; the real impetus for going to war; the timing of Blair’s commitment to military action; and the leaked “Downing Street memo” of July 2002, which revealed that Blair and other top British government officials had been informed that the U.S. believed military action in Iraq was “inevitable” and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

As in his other tribunals, Kent has replicated the hearing room, this time an uncluttered one, dominated by a U-shaped table with chairs for the legal teams and a witness. Plasma screens, which have become a staple of the Tricycle’s tribunals, project the written evidence that the lawyers refer to, drawing the audience into a consideration of the statements and deeper into the event.

Diane Fletcher as Clare Short in "Called to Account," Tricycle Theatre, London (2007).In any verbatim play, the actor’s challenge is to re-present a real person. In this production, actress Diane Fletcher appears to channel Clare Short. Even if you’re not familiar with Short’s actual vocal and physical mannerisms, which I’m not, audience comments and laughter of recognition corroborate the many reviews that complimented the performer for being on the mark. Fletcher’s Short oozes disdain for “Tony,” his method of governing by informal groups of personal appointees, his dispensing charm while telling lies. Short was concerned in February 2003 that Blair would not wait for U.N. authorization of the war and decided to consult with the Prime Minister’s wife. When the prosecution asks why she took that step, her response is just a bit eccentric. She was getting “desperate” about international law, she says, and thought, “Well, Cherie is a human rights lawyer and you know, she and Tony have a very close relationship—why not give it a try?”

A core group of actors regularly appear in the tribunals, and those I’ve spoken to express pride about their involvement in this important body of political theater work. Thomas Wheatley portrays Sands who represents the prosecution, overseeing the inquiry with intense concentration and a probing intelligence. David Beames as Scott Ritter is an outspoken cowboy-like American, telling it like it is about WMD. William Hoyland (who portrayed Donald Rumsfeld in the Tricycle’s verbatim play about Guantánamo Bay) plays two government officials, one a worldly-wise, almost flippant commissioner for the British intelligence services. Asked how Blair in March 2003 could be “unequivocal” in his belief that Iraq had breached the 2002 U.N. resolution calling for disarmament and further inspections, he replies, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The aim of the hearing is to test the evidence, and Called to Account can be slightly dry at times, but it is mostly engrossing. Past tribunals at the Tricycle have had strong emotional centers, as in The Colour of Justice (1999), about the police investigation into the murder of a young black man, and Bloody Sunday (2005), about the 1972 killing of Irish civil rights marchers by British soldiers in Londonderry. In Called to Account, although they are not the focal point, the ghosts of tens of thousands of people who have died in Iraq since the war began hover over the proceedings. As an American watching the play, I couldn’t help feeling the government leader who must be held accountable for the Iraq tragedy is President George W. Bush.

Called to Account is framed with the arguments by the prosecutor and the defense, delivered directly to the audience. In the end, it’s not clear that there are indeed legal grounds for a case against the Prime Minister. But as in all its other verbatim plays, the Tricycle has provided its audience with a keen exploration of a critical issue as well as a good night out.


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