Called to Account

Tricycle Theatre, London

The interesting thing about Nick Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor’s latest tribunal hearing is that although it is ostensibly an investigation into the record of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair and his guilt or not in an act of `aggression’ in invading Iraq with the US in March 2003, you can’t help but draw the conclusion that the unsolved mystery still lurking at the heart of one of Britain’s worst foreign `adventures’ in modern times lies at the door of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith.Time and again, witnesses called by Kent and Norton-Taylor in this fictionalised `trial’ of Tony Blair, fail to find any convincing argument as to why Goldsmith had a sudden change of heart in his legal advice, between March 7th and 17th, 2003 from one of reluctance to giving Blair the legal go-ahead. At the end of its two and a half hour investigation, Bob Marshall-Andrews, the Labour MP can only come up with the vague supposition that it was due to `Goldsmith’s relationship with the PM’. Another Intelligence witness, quizzed on Goldsmith’s change of heart can only surmise: `Your guess is as good as mine.’

Despite the best endeavours of Norton-Taylor and his team of high-flying lawyers to `prove the case’ against Blair of `the crime of aggression’ of which Goldsmith’s advice to the Prime Minister played a crucial role in legalising it’s legitimacy, the evidence remains inconclusive. As Sir Menzies Campbell, one of the speakers in the after-performance debate on opening night and himself a longtime opponent of the war, put it, the case, as in the Scottish legal system, remained `not proven.’ He was not prepared to commit himself to what was going on in Blair’s mind!

Nor, in fact, it has to be said, for all this assiduous research based on interviews with key protagonists (though many refused to give evidence including Anne Clwyd and members of the government), could we, the audience, have been any more unequivocal than ‘Ming at the end of Called to Account. The bombardment of facts and legalistic sophisteries felt often like a porridge of information through which one swam in vain trying to make sense of it all (though a later close reading of the highly informative programme does begin to clarify).

Called to Account – and I say this as one who was against the war and has followed events and arguments with I hope an intelligent lay woman’s interest and concern – is very much, once again, for those of a forensic turn of mind. In the end, one is inevitably and probably predictably brought to the conclusion that, at the very least, Blair was guilty of chicanery and deception. But it is more of a gut feeling for all the forensic, line-by-line documentation and eye-witness accounts presented to us. One has the feeling by the end that the evening has definitely been weighted more towards the Prosecution’s case. But hard evidence? that was harder to pin down. For, in the end, it comes down to `interpretation': zillions of words of legal documentation, leaked memos and `sofa chats’, as `Clare Short’ described Blair’s style of leadership.

Not for nothing, however, have these `tribunal theatre’ stagings of Nick Kent’s been rightly lauded. Like a terrier, he has harried away at social and political injustice be it with the Arms to Iraq affair, Bloody Sunday or the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. He will hold our conniving Executives to account, come what may, and we should be eternally grateful to him for that. He has become a sort of national conscience and a theatre practitioner who believes powerfully, as in the best of journalism, in the role of theatre to act as a political counter-balance to abuses of power by those in high places. But does it make for good drama?

For my money, the importance of Called to Account – surely, one day, Blair and Bush will meet their respective nemesis – is negated by its legalistic dryness. By far the most entertaining and almost enlightening part of the evening was the post-performance debate between `apologist’ (he’ll hate the word) David Aaronovitch and ‘Ming Campbell, chaired by Jon Snow with typical flair and balance. Aaronovitch bristled and accused the evening of coming up with nothing new and failing to address now more important issues such as the continuing genocide in Darfur (perhaps he’d forgotten that Kent had staged a programme of plays, only a few months ago, on precisely that theme). Campbell meanwhile gleamed and declared that public disquiet would continue whilst young British men, `in the flower of their youth’ were losing their lives in Iraq. And the audience responded with some perceptive judgements including the question as to why the British witnesses seemed so much more `comedic’ than their American counterparts.

Amongst these Diane Fletcher as Clare Short proved one of the evening’s highpoints as a dead ringer for the former Minister who resigned from the government and has become one of Blair’s strongest critics. Kent regulars, William Hoyland, Jeremy Clyde, James Woolley and Thomas Wheatley (as Prosecuting counsel, Philippe Sands) once again all delivered court-room performances of polished aplomb. But Shane Rimmer as Richard Perle created a paler shadow of the hawkish incisiveness that distinguishes the American in real life whilst Roland Oliver’s `Michael Mates’ reduced the by no means lightweight Tory MP who sat on the Butler review committee to bluff caricature. A fascinating evening but a not entirely satisfying one.

This review first published in April, 2007 on Rogues & Vagabonds website