Spirit of inquiry

Theatre - Richard Norton-Taylor welcomes the Tricycle's latest real-life drama

The role of the theatre in exposing the truth and reality, unvarnished, is making a welcome comeback. But can it really be a more effective and honest medium than newspapers, television or radio? Yes. My confidence in drama as an effective vehicle for exploring current affairs was confirmed the other evening as I watched the Tricycle Theatre's latest in what it calls the Tribunal Plays.

Guantanamo "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" (the title is taken from a sign above the entrance to the camp) is a powerful expose of how the US netted young Muslims, including Britons, in Afghanistan and elsewhere and deposited them, ignoring humanitarian or international law, into the military base in Cuba. In a devastating speech, which might not have been out of place in a Greek amphitheatre, the character portraying the law lord Steyn explains that "the purpose of holding the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay was and is to put them beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts, and at the mercy of the victors".

We have read and heard about Guantanamo in dribs and drabs, says William Hoyland, the actor who "plays" or rather reads the part of Lord Steyn. "Here it is condensed in one evening, alive in front of your eyes. It has a much greater impact both intellectually and emotionally."

This, for me a journalist, is what the theatre can do better, much more forcefully, than newspapers or other media. There is no pressure to distort by epithets or spin. There is less temptation, indeed there is no need, to contrive. "You can get nearer to the real truth," says the Tricycle's imaginative director, Nicolas Kent. "You can get a better overview, not just soundbites. You are communing silently with your fellow human beings with a multitude of different voices alive for you."

I have edited a series of long-running inquiries or trials for the Tricycle. The first, Half the Picture, was a distillation of Sir Richard Scott's arms-to-Iraq inquiry. "Half the picture can be true," said Sir Robin, then cabinet secretary, now Lord Butler and presiding over a private inquiry into the use of intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme.

"Wasn't I good?" a senior Whitehall official, played by an actor, asked his mother after one performance. Flattery, of a kind. Next came Nuremberg, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nazi war crimes trial. "Why did you do it?" a tearful member of the audience whose family had been exterminated at Auschwitz, asked me. Flattery, I suppose, of a different kind.

Nuremberg was followed by The Colour of Justice, edited extracts from the Mac-pherson inquiry into the racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in south-east London. Many young black and Asian people went to the theatre for the first time in their lives to see it.

Last year, Kent persuaded me to choose extracts from Lord Hutton's inquiry into the events surrounding the suicide of the government's Iraqi weapons expert David Kelly. My play Justifying War laid out the evidence. What the former law lord did with it was another matter. While a senior officer of the Metropolitan Police told me I had been "too fair" to his colleagues in The Colour of Justice, Brian Jones, a former defence intelligence officer, chastised me for exaggerating a part of his evidence by omission in Justifying War.

I exposed myself to charges of bias or lack of balance. These were not reconstructions or drama documentaries, nor were they faction. They were not akin to the plays of David Hare, either - notably The Permanent Way, his searing indictment of the management of our rail system. "I work like an artist," Hare has said, "not like a journalist." Television, too, has exposed in different ways. Granada TV's play Who Bombed Birmingham? helped the Birmingham Six in their fight for justice. Paul Greengrass's extremely well-received docudrama Omagh, broadcast on Channel 4 on 27 May, was another example of how television can allow a wider audience to share the experience and emotions of individuals caught up in devastating incidents.

The Tricycle Tribunal Plays have more in common, perhaps, with other works that have a factual script. These include Come Out Eli, based on taped conversations with witnesses to the Hackney siege that began on Boxing Day 2002, and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, opening at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill on 7 June.

My next project is a dramatisation of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. We know in broad terms the events of 30 January 1972, when 13 unarmed civil-rights marchers were shot dead by British troops. But the play will include testimonies that we have not heard or even read.

Our Tribunal Plays have common themes - the evasion, buck-passing and dissembling of those in power. Real people unwittingly damn themselves, or emerge as honest heroes, in their own words. This is how real people responded in the dock. But it is not how journalists normally report such inquiries as daily "news". We are tempted, often encouraged, to distort in an attempt to grab the attention of readers and news editors.

Any editing is subjective, but far less so when it is for a two-hour script than for an article of a few hundred words, or a television clip of a few moments. A theatre audience thus gets a much better understanding of the issues. Judging by the response from audiences and critics alike, there is a growing thirst for theatre that is the antithesis of the whodunnit. We know what happened and why this trial or that public inquiry was held, but often only in the crudest and most superficial way.

It is not only the exchanges between lawyer and witness which give the plays their drama. Telling details and moving anecdotes resonate more in a theatre than in the conventional news media - if, and it is unlikely, they are mentioned there at all.

Guantanamo "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020 7328 1000) to 12 June

Richard Norton-Taylor is security affairs editor of the Guardian

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