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Review: Terror (Lyric Hammersmith)

The audience are made to act as jury in a complex moral case in the UK premiere of Ferdinand von Schirach's play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Terror is probably one of the most unhappily relevant plays around at the moment, dealing, as it does, with a terrorist attack. At its centre is a plane, hijacked by a person trying to fly it into a sports stadium filled with 70,000 people. But the unique thing about Ferdinand von Schirach's play is that we don't witness the moments before, during or directly after the attack. None of what happens is played out in front of our eyes. It's relayed through reported speech, although we do witness a catastrophe, of sorts: a moral catastrophe.

Terror positions the audience as a jury. Literally. From our seats, with the lights dimmed, we sit looking at a court, presided over by a judge, and hear evidence given by the defence and prosecution. There are opening speeches, witnesses on the stand and closing speeches. But, crucially, the perpetrator in this trial is not the perpetrator you might expect. This is the trial of the pilot who shot down the Lufthansa flight filled with 164 innocent civilians – plus a hijacker – in the hopes of diverting an even bigger disaster: the deaths of the people on the ground below. He went against explicit instructions and the law – both of which said that he must not shoot down a plane in this situation – and decided for himself that losing 164 lives was better than losing 70,000.

The question the audience has to decide is this: is Lars Koch a murderer? Is he guilty, or not guilty? After each lawyer puts forward their case, and we have heard from Koch, one of his airforce co-workers and the wife of one of the people on the plane, we are asked to choose. We must press one for guilty or two for not guilty into a little electronic pad under our seat.

It sounds like an electrifying premise, and there are certainly moments in this play which will give even the most morally secure of people cause for wobble. Essentially the piece isn't really about terrorism at all, it becomes about asking yourself the philosophical question of how far you might go and what the boundaries are when it comes to taking a life. It forces us to look exceptionally closely at what we think of as right and wrong.

There are significant problems with the staging of Terror, however, which is mainly that trials are often exceptionally static affairs. Though von Schirach has managed to stretch out a complex, tangled case into a script that is generally coherent and interesting, it does not detract from the fact that for an hour and a half we are watching men and women in gowns talking out to us from the middle of the floor. The Lyric Hammersmith's stage doesn't help much. It is elevated above us and much further away than if we were a real jury, which meant I felt quite disconnected from what was happening on the stage. I still didn't really entirely feel like a juror. This piece lends itself to a smaller, more intimate production for a handful of people. Sean Holmes' staging is the opposite of this – and with Anna Fleischle's imposing court room designs it feels grand and remote.

The night I saw it, the verdict was not guilty by 65 per cent of the vote. And I wonder whether, with theatre audiences at the Lyric, they will ever get a guilty vote. There's a slight conundrum with that: I think it's probably fair to say that jurys, because they have been specifically picked, are generally more diverse and less predictable than theatre audiences. Still though, giving the audience the power to decide the fate of one man, who decided for himself the fate of 164 others, offers a really, really interesting layer of complexity. And it is guaranteed to remind us that whether someone is wrong or right, or guilty or not guilty, is really a matter of perception.

Terror runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 15 July.

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