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Exclusive: Thomas Wheatley on appearing in the Tricycle theatre’s tribunal plays

Published 20 June 2011

Over the past two decades the Tricycle theatre has positioned itself at the vanguard of political theatre with its award-winning tribunal plays. Adapted from verbatim transcripts of trials and hearings, the plays place the spotlight on some of the most controversial events of recent history, including the murder of Stephen Lawrence, Bloody Sunday and Britain’s involvement in Iraq.

As the only actor to have appeared in all eight tribunal plays – including current production Tactical Questioning – Thomas Wheatley talks exclusively to Official London Theatre about what the experience has meant to him. 

Tactical Questioning will be the eighth so-called Tricycle tribunal play, and I am inordinately proud to be the one actor to have appeared in all of them. I always used to be in the witness box, but nowadays I tend to be the lawyer in charge, on this occasion barely pausing for breath as Gerard Elias QC, Counsel to the Baha Mousa Inquiry.

It all began in 1994 with Nicolas Kent’s courageous vision to present on stage edited but verbatim transcripts from, of all turgid things, the Scott Inquiry into the supply of arms to Iraq under the then Conservative government. Nick’s collaborator was the journalist Richard Norton-Taylor, whose task it was to wade through the sea of material and reduce it into some digestible form. I myself was recruited as a fair look-alike for William Waldegrave, generally considered to be the most vulnerable of the ministers under scrutiny. We actors readily went along with this outlandish idea, but none of us could really believe that such dry as dust language, such tortuously convoluted argument, such static staging might prove to be a satisfying theatrical experience. Half The Picture, however, was a resounding success, shockingly revealing of the murky world of arms trading and entertainingly absurdist on the secretiveness of ‘open government’. Nick Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor had reinvented the honourable tradition of political theatre, and I had begun to discover the very particular challenges and rewards of playing real people speaking authentically in important public situations.

Nuremberg remains, for me, the greatest in the Tricycle canon because of the immense historical significance of that trial and the exceptional verisimilitude of our reconstruction. Everybody, surely, was familiar with those pictures of the 22 Nazi defendants sitting in the dock, but hardly anybody would have had any knowledge of what these men might have had to say for themselves in their own defence. Nuremberg was potently revealing in taking the audience articulately inside this seminal War Crimes trial.

Nuremberg was hugely acclaimed but, as the only historical reconstruction we have mounted, it perhaps stands rather outside the principal thrust of Nick Kent’s vision to illuminate firmly contemporaneous political issues. In so doing, The Colour Of Justice was an evident landmark, a phenomenon. The tragic murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence at the hands of racist thugs had touched a national nerve, and now the Tricycle’s re-enactment of the inquiry hearings was presented at the height of public concern around the issue and just ahead of the publication of the Macpherson report. Audiences were able, as it were, to attend the inquiry, to be in the public gallery, listening to the facts speaking for themselves.

Many of us had little faith that the interminable, profligate and apparently futile Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday could be transformed into such theatrical gold. In the event Richard Norton-Taylor did one of his finest jobs, distilling nearly five years’ worth of hearings into a representative and balanced summary, selecting out of a total of 921 the most telling witnesses, and crafting it all into an accessible story. Bloody Sunday was persuasive of the view that the inquiry was indeed essential to the developing peace process in Northern Ireland, that the bereaved of Derry were owed some closure for their three decades of grief, and that the military should be held properly accountable in such controversial circumstances. In Ireland, where such arguments were already substantially accepted, the play in a sense came home; telling this story in Derry itself was I think the most purposeful and privileged acting experience I’ve ever had.

Not content with changing opinion, the Tricycle in its next offering now sought to form opinion. The Iraqi bit always firmly between his teeth, Nick Kent found a way to call the Prime Minister to account by constructing the Tricycle’s own hearing to consider the grounds for an indictment of Tony Blair for the crime of aggression in Iraq. It was an extraordinary coup – and surely a measure of the respect in which this body of work was now held – that so many distinguished figures were prepared to be cross examined by lawyers collaborating with Nick, and to permit the transcripts duly edited by Richard to contribute to Called To Account.

Against a background of continuing controversy about our involvement in Iraq, of the publication last summer of the Bloody Sunday report, of the recent announcement that two suspects in the Stephen Lawrence case are to be re-tried, and now of the arrest of General Ratko Mladic, these Tricycle plays are clearly holding a mirror to contemporary society and providing a forum for public debate about the way we live.

– Thomas Wheatley

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