Thomas Wheatley stars as prosecution lawyer Philippe Sands in the world premiere production of Called to Account, the latest in the Tricycle Theatre’s series of documentary-style verbatim dramas, directed by artistic director Nicolas Kent.
Two leading barristers have been testing the evidence – including witness testimony from MPs, diplomats, international lawyers, UN officials, intelligence experts and journalists - on whether there would be sufficient grounds to indict Tony Blair for his involvement in the Iraq war. Their reports form the basis for the new play – full title Called to Account: An Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the Crime of Aggression Against Iraq - which premieres at the Tricycle on 23 April 2007 (previews from 19 April) for a limited season to 19 May.
Wheatley has appeared in all of the so-called Tricycle Tribunal Plays to date, since the first, 1994’s Half the Picture – the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry, which was the first play ever staged in the Houses of Parliament. Subsequent Tribunal Plays have included: Nuremberg, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1946 War Crimes Tribunal; The Colour of Justice, a reconstruction of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry; Justifying War - Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry; Guantanamo - Honor Bound to Defend Freedom; and Bloody Sunday - Scenes from the Saville Inquiry, which was also performed in Belfast and Dublin and won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement.worked.
Wheatley’s other stage credits include Oliver Twist at the Lyric Hammersmith, The Road to Ruin at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, Celebration at the Lincoln Center in New York, directed by Harold Pinter, and The Novice at the Almeida, directed by Richard Eyre. On television, Wheatley has had roles in The Murder Room, Foyle’s War, Second Sight, Aquila, First and Last, Harry’s Kingdom, The Singing Detective and Honest, Decent and True. His films include Death at a Funeral and The Living Daylights.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Chelmsford in Essex in August 1951.
Lives now in…
Chiswick, west London.
Drama Studio London in Ealing, which does very useful intensive one-year courses for late starters like me!
First big break
I was a late starter. I had a sensible job in shipping before going into acting. I cut my teeth at the end of the pier with the incomparable Mollie Sugden, but I think my main break came on TV and film in the late Eighties. I caught the tail end of an era of great TV including The Singing Detective and so I suppose that was it. And also at that time I did have a nice part in a James Bond movie called Living Daylights - I played the other British agent totally lacking in all the charm and sex appeal of James Bond!
Career highlights to date
There’s no doubt about it that the thing I’m proudest of is this series of plays at the Tricycle starting in 1994, 13 years ago. This is the seventh that I’ve done so I’m very proud of being part of these pieces. Generally, I’m probably happier with theatre than film or TV. I don’t do a lot of TV these days, but I had a great highlight last year making another feature film which we will get later this summer called Death at a Funeral. It’s a black farce directed by Frank Oz - the Muppet man - and I think it’s going to be quite fine. I play the vicar.
There was a lovely production of Oliver Twist by Neil Bartlett. It was great playing Mr Brownlow, I loved doing that. And appearing in 2000 in Harold Pinter’s play Celebration directed by him was another highlight. He seems to be suggesting that he’s not going to be writing any more plays. If so, that will have been his last one so that feels amazing to have done that both at the Almeida and then in New York.
It was a joy 20 years ago working with Timothy Dalton on the Bond movie. He was very welcoming and generous to me - a delight to work with. But, especially in TV, I’ve worked with all sorts of people. Actors are very companionable people and I enjoy everyone’s company.
On television I would mention a wonderful one called Alan Dossor who I’ve done quite a lot with including a lovely Michael Frayn film for the BBC called First and Last. In theatre, Nicolas Kent and Harold Pinter, and I had a very nice time with Richard Eyre. And I’d put in a world too for Sam Walters at the Orange Tree. He runs a marvellous theatre and I’ve been in a handful of his wonderful rediscoveries of older plays there.
I’m putting Shakespeare aside as one does the Bible in Desert Island Discs… I do love Chekhov. I love all his male parts and I covet them all. I’ve never done a single one, though, so I’d love to have a chance at that.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I’m a great fan of Eugene O’Neill’s work. I saw A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Old Vic and thought that was very fine.
What made you first want to become an actor?
I worked in shipping for seven years in Europe and Australasia. Then in my late 20s I woke up and abandoned all that. I think I always have wanted to act from the very earliest age. I knew that’s what I wanted, but I didn’t do it at first because of responding to the conspiracy of parental expectations and background. When I got that bit older, I just decided to go for it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I think absolutely the best note I’ve ever been given as an actor is serve the play. I’d say that. It indicates that’s what you’re all working towards, and it takes one away from oneself because you are focussed on the text.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Invest more money in it. Simple as that.
All the works of a marvellous German writer called WG Sebald. He’s been my most notable discovery in recent years. If I had to choose one of his books, it would be The Emigrants.
Favourite holiday destinations
I do quite a lot of serious travel. I’ve travelled extensively in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, and more recently I’ve become obsessed with Eastern Europe. Every three years or so I go off on an adventure, pressing further each time. I travel resolutely on my own because I think one’s more available to the experience that way.
Why did you want to accept your role in Called to Account?
It is the sort of big juicy prosecution counsel part which I was very keen to take on. In the last Tricycle extravaganza, which was the Bloody Sunday piece on the Saville Enquiry, I played Christopher Clarke who was counsel to that enquiry. It was the first time I had been a proper lawyer and I really took to it. This is not dissimilar. I’m there all the time and talking to all the witnesses bar one, which is great. But the larger reason is I have done all these Tricycle political plays and I have really enjoyed them.
What is it that most appeals to you about verbatim dramas?
You’re playing real people saying authentic things in very important situations. There’s something very potent about that, and it’s very special because of that potency and immediacy.
Do you think plays like Called to Account make an impact on the government?
We shall see. I would expect it to have some impact because, although the question of the legality of the war in Iraq has been bandied about for a long time, I don’t know whether it has been quite so concentrated on as it is being now and the Tricycle pieces do have an impact. With Bloody Sunday, for example, I think a lot of people in this country were less inclined to take an interest, but we were very popular in Ireland when we played it there and it was relevant to Britain in terms of the military being accountable. And going back to the Stephen Lawrence enquiry piece we did, that certainly made an impact and broke into public consciousness. So I think we can cause a real stir.
What are the main challenges for you in this production?
At the moment to get through it all in one piece! The two lawyers are there all the time and it’s quite a long sing, as they say in the opera world. You’ve just got to keep going. All the witnesses have to know their stuff very well. We have our material in front of us at our fingertips, but a lot is made to feel spontaneous so you can’t be relying on that by any means. It is scripted but it’s all transcripted material from actual interviews, and there are some very fast rebuttals.
Do your personal opinions reflect those represented by your character in the play?
My personal opinion is that probably the defence will take the case on technical grounds. But I have to say that I am completely persuaded by the moral case of the prosecution, which I’m arguing in the play, so I don’t have any problems with expressing that view. I have been a great supporter of this government, but Iraq was a tragedy. In the end, though, it’s all acting, whatever my views are. In an earlier political drama I played a commandant of Auschwitz without subscribing to the final solution, so the parts I play certainly don’t have to represent my actual views.
Is a verdict delivered at the end of the play?
That’s entirely left to the audience. We begin with short opening statements from the prosecution and defence lawyers and then we go through 11 witnesses, cross-examined by prosecution and defence, and we finish with closing statements. It is then left to the audience to make up their own minds. I don’t think they are actually going to get to vote on it, but it is left as if they might be about to go and consider their verdict. The idea is for us simply to air the issues rather than make the judgement. These Tricycle pieces have built up such a powerful reputation because they’re scrupulously balanced. Each side of the argument is presented as fully as possible in order to let people draw their own conclusions.
How involved were you in research for the play?
The material really belongs to the actual lawyers. But I was lucky enough to go along to three or four of the cross examinations that feature in the play - I operated the camera for them! So I did get the opportunity to see how these lawyers worked and behaved, and get a flavour of the proceedings.
Do you have a favourite line or scene from Called to Account?
I do very much enjoy the scene with Richard Perle, the American politician who features in a very strong scene. I enjoy that because he’s a witness for the defence so the prosecution, me, gets to have a really good go at him!
What are your future plans?
I would love to be able to go travelling this summer, but if something exciting comes along then I’m willing to change my plans.
- Thomas Wheatley was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Called to Account opens on 23 April at the Tricycle Theatre (previews from 19 April), where its limited season continues until 19 May 2007.