Blair in the dock

Issue section: 

Theatre director Nicolas Kent and Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor are well known for their powerful plays based on tribunal hearings. They talked to Mark Brown about their new drama, Called to Account, which puts Tony Blair in the dock over Iraq

An interesting process has taken place since the movement against the Iraq war exploded onto the British political scene. A legal term, which ordinarily would be a topic of discussion for only a small minority of the population, has become part of mainstream public consciousness - possibly millions of people in Britain believe that their own prime minister is a "war criminal".

You hear it on every protest against the war, of course, and anti-war speakers who raise the issue of Blair's criminality on Question Time are applauded by sections of the audience. The belief that Blair should, at least, stand trial for the invasion and occupation of Iraq runs deeper than that.

Now, four years since the invasion, and with Blair leaving office obsessed with securing his "legacy", Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre in London, and journalist Richard Norton-Taylor, security affairs editor of the Guardian, have created a new play with the full title Called to Account - The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq - A Hearing. Kent and Norton-Taylor have worked together on a number of stage dramas using transcripts from legal tribunals, most famously the Stephen Lawrence inquiry drama The Colour of Justice and Nazi war crimes piece Nuremberg.

For Called to Account, however, there was no pre-existing hearing to base their play on, so they had to create one. "Despite the leaked Downing Street memos, Blair and the government say, 'We don't comment on any documents,' and the committees in parliament are pretty weak and are controlled by whips anyway," explains Norton-Taylor. "So, we decided to have a hearing ourselves, in the theatre, as an alternative."

Enlisting the services of leading lawyers Philippe Sands QC for the prosecution and Julian Knowles for the defence, they assembled an extraordinary array of witnesses. Senior US Republican defence adviser Richard Perle, Tory MP Michael Mates and former cabinet minister Clare Short were called on to give evidence to be used as the basis for the dramatised trial. The line-up of witnesses flies in the face of the commentators who have recently been proclaiming the irrelevance of theatre.

"A lot of people knew about us because of the Stephen Lawrence play, or the piece about the Hutton inquiry or even [Tricycle's production] Guantanamo," says Kent. He nevertheless acknowledges that the list looks impressive. "I was a little surprised that we were able to land them all. It took us quite some time."

In the past the Tricycle has had difficulty getting some witnesses to take part. With Guantanamo (another piece for which a legal hearing had to be constructed), for instance, Richard Perle proved much less amenable. "When we asked Perle to take part in the Guantanamo play, he gave us a very dusty answer," Kent remembers. "He wrote me an email saying, 'Forgive me if I am highly sceptical of the objectivity of this process.' Whereas, when we asked him to do this, he was much more interested."

The pro-war right

The key to achieving such a broad and balanced panel of witnesses for Called to Account, the director believes, was that the legal objectivity of the process was generally accepted. People like Perle may have suspected that Kent and Norton-Taylor - whose opposition to the war is well known - have particular views as to Blair's guilt where war crimes are concerned, but they accepted the process as open and fair. "I think people felt that we were testing the evidence," says Kent. "It is quite difficult to indict a prime minister internationally - there are huge obstacles in your way."

Norton-Taylor is also pleased that prominent figures from the pro-war right took part in the hearing. Although his own journalism has played a significant role in exposing the lies and cover-ups of Blair's war drive, he wasn't interested in creating a drama which was just a piece of anti-war agitprop. "There are some interesting comments from people like Michael Mates and Richard Perle about mistakes being made and so on," he says. "You're getting people from both sides, which actually makes it more effective."

Both director and writer believe that the theatre is the best possible forum for debates about important political disputes like the occupation of Iraq. "Theatre is a great medium for presenting contemporary issues that aren't, perhaps cannot be, adequately or properly articulated in newspapers, television or radio," says Norton-Taylor.

"In the theatre you have the interaction between actors and audience, but also, as a journalist, it's much more rewarding to have something like 30,000 words to create two hours of theatre in which people can actually see the beginning and the end, and different aspects of an issue or controversy. That's almost impossible in journalism, unless you have a long essay or something."

For Kent, as a dramatist, there is a world of difference between presenting the arguments around a major political issue on television and doing the same thing at the theatre. "In the theatre you have quite a lot of time to wrestle with an issue, whereas television programmes are fast and punchy. Television programmes can't be a slow burn in the way that theatre productions can: they can't accumulate ideas and issues; they have to go immediately for the jugular.

"The other problem with television is, you don't have a communal feeling while watching it. You watch it, on the whole, in a room with one or two other people, or by yourself. The relationship, when you watch television, is sterile, because you can't influence it in any way. In the theatre people laugh at things that are ridiculous in the evidence, or they become bored or angry, giving the whole thing a much more visceral feeling."

If the "liveness" of theatre creates a sense of tension and public debate which television can't achieve, perhaps that suggests that the theatre is closer to the courtroom than people might think. Kent sees a direct parallel: "Quite a lot of barristers would tell you that in their early career, while they were training, they were actually actors."

Although there are many benefits to setting the issues in the context of a legal hearing, there is also, in Norton-Taylor's opinion, a significant problem. "What is the status of international law? How do you prove that someone is a war criminal? In the play we approach it as a grand jury type situation with a prima facie case for the indictment; but the International Criminal Court hasn't agreed what constitutes a crime of aggression.

"For me it's quite obvious what Blair has done and what have been the consequences of his decisions. However, to say that he's committed a particular kind of international crime or war crime is a jump, in a way."

Regardless of whether people have faith that the international legal system, or the legal system of any one country, can or will indict Blair, isn't the real point of the play to explore the moral and political consequences of the Blair administration's decisions? "I think that's a certainty," agrees Norton-Taylor. "That's why I'm not too bothered about the details of international law. The two lawyers get pretty heavy about that, and that's fine for them, but the point, for me, is to get out even more of the evidence against Blair, and the people defending him too, for that matter."

In the course of bringing out that further evidence, the Tricycle's play looks set to explain to audiences exactly why Blair and some of his closest friends have a few legal worries.

The prime minister and his entourage may not actually expect Blair to end up behind bars but, as Kent explains, "there are rumours that Downing Street is drawing up a list of countries that Tony Blair would be ill-advised to travel to when he leaves office - countries like Azerbaijan and Germany, funnily enough, which have, under statutory law, the crime of aggression.

Lord Goldsmith

"When the attorney general's advice was eventually released by Blair," Norton-Taylor adds, "it turned out that Goldsmith was advising Blair that he could get done in some countries. Rumsfeld, for example, did not go to Germany until a senior court dismissed an appeal that he could be arrested and charged for war crimes."

The legal heart of the matter revolves around attorney general Lord Goldsmith's advice to the Blair government. "Goldsmith features strongly in the piece," explains Norton-Taylor. "A major question is, was the invasion lawful, and what did he actually advise?

"In answer to a parliamentary question we know that he changed his view after Admiral Boyce of the Ministry of Defence staff said he wanted an unequivocal assurance that, in Goldsmith's view, the invasion was legal and British troops weren't going to get done [in court].

"Goldsmith then went to Blair and asked him if, in his view, Iraq was still in breach of UN resolutions. Blair said that was his view. Goldsmith then, on 17 March 2003, gives his advice that an invasion would be legal, when ten days earlier he was saying there were legal problems with it. That's a key issue."

Goldsmith is, say both Kent and Norton-Taylor, "in the dock" alongside Blair in the play. Some critics will argue, however, that the audience will be made up almost entirely of people who are against the war, and have already found them guilty. "A lot of people say, 'You're preaching to the converted'," says the director. "To some extent, inevitably, we are, but there are a lot of people who come to our plays undecided about an issue, and leave feeling that they understand it more clearly and come down on one side or the other.

"I spoke to someone the other day who saw The Colour of Justice, and he said, 'Before I saw the play I absolutely did not believe in institutional racism. I thought it was a press myth. By the end of it I understood what institutional racism was - my mind changed.' I think Called to Account can do that too."

Called to Account is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until 19 May.