Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Where’s the Conflict in this Deadly War of Words?

Marc Sidwell reviews ‘Called to Account: The indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq – a Hearing’ at the Tricycle.

Peter Brook once wrote that a man walking across a bare stage is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged. But what if he just sits there?

In this two hour fantasy tribunal, the Tricycle theatre takes its pacifist politics even more seriously than normal, choosing to eliminate any suspicion of conflict from the script itself. Instead, two men in suits take turns to put their jackets on and off while questioning bureaucrats. In a rare moment of tension, a secretary fumbles as she tries to slip her shoes back on before it is her turn to stand up and sit down again. And I made the tension part up. Her feet slip in and out of her heels just as smoothly as I slipped in and out of consciousness throughout the second half.

It would be easy to dismiss this as cheap criticism. But a cheap play deserves nothing better. The reason this play lacks any spark is not just that the devising team have purged it of all normal sources of theatrical diversion and variety, but that the tawdry subject matter wastes our time. We’d all have been better off with our heads down.

The real tribunal plays at the Tricycle, edited from actual, existing transcripts, provided a startling new kind of dramatic realism, dragging onstage characters from the very eyries of contemporary power, their words for once inescapably exact. The action moved towards a real verdict, on which justice and truth hinged. ‘Called to Account’ does nothing of the kind, because it never happened. The writers have fabricated a “tribunal” with the C- and D-listers who suited their agenda and were willing to take part in a phoney exercise, only Richard Perle adding a serious counterweight to Bob Marshall-Andrews and Clare Short (the latter admittedly well-played). It all ends with a sputter, as the fake inquiry fails even to reach a fake verdict.

Yet who cares? With a title like this one, the chatteriat were out in (peacekeeping) force for the press night: from Menzies Campbell to the Guardian’s top-ranking commissars, all revelling in the fantasy that they matter. On Newsnight Review, one critic was so deep into false consciousness she was reduced to praising the play’s bold use of tedium. You don’t realise how hard it is to act dull, she gushed, not remembering it is even harder to watch.

For those of us who haven’t been looking for a voodoo doll of Blair to stick pins in, much better stay home and get some shuteye. This is a fantasy play, a distraction in dangerous times. As David Aaronovitch protested to the blinkered audience in a post-show discussion, where was the play detailing abuses in Darfur and calling for action? That would be to blend investigative journalism with the tribunal play format in a fresh and engaging manner. Where was the reconstruction of a terror trial, as has just ended today? Why not gather a collection of soldiers, journalists and foreign policy advisers and make the case for sticking with the Iraqis, whatever one’s thoughts about the invasion, in the interests of fighting off the murderous fascist gang of thugs now trying to steal their country? A play where we don’t know what we think, or that sharpens our appreciation of moral horrors we could do something to mitigate would be worth watching.

Instead, the Tricycle is sitting still, speaking words that don’t matter to an audience who already agrees about something that is never going to happen. Peter Brook would have understood where their theatrical experiment has ended up. “To make matters worse there is always a deadly spectator, who for special reasons enjoys a lack of intensity and even a lack of entertainment… who emerges from routine performances… reciting his favourite lines under his breath… he lends the weight of his authority to dullness and so the Deadly Theatre goes on its way.”

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